With candor and humor, environmental regulators give commitments to tackle challenges

In 15 years of public policy programs hosted by Marquette Law School, there may never have been as succinct, candid, and humorous answer to a question as one provided by Preston Cole, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, during a program on June 15, 2022, in the Lubar Center of Eckstein Hall.

The session, “A Federal-State Conversation on Environmental Issues,” featured Cole and Debra Shore, administrator of Region 5 of the Environmental Protection Agency, which covers much of the Midwest, including Wisconsin. David Strifling, director of the Law School’s Water Law and Policy Initiative, was the moderator. The session was held before an in-person audience and livestreamed.

Strifling asked Cole what was one thing Wisconsin needed from the EPA. “Money, money, money, money!” Cole sang in response. “Money!” he added, for emphasis.

EPA funding translates into buying power to deal with major environmental issues such as the impact of large-scale agricultural operations, invasive species, and chemical contamination of water, Cole said.

Shore and Cole said their agencies have renewed and increased commitments to dealing with a host of issues including pollution from chemicals known as PFAS and global warming.

Asked about criticism from some that the pace of issuing federal rules related to PFAS was slow, Shore said, “It’s taking time, it’s true, but science takes time.” She pointed to new federal guidance, issued the day of the event, that aims to make substantial reductions in PFAS pollution, and she said new proposals on regulations were expected by the end of 2022.

After years when environmental regulation moved slowly under Gov. Scott Walker, Cole said, “We’re back in the game and we’re going to deliver on our promises” to protect public health related to chemicals such as PFAS.

Asked about efforts to deal with climate change, Shore said the new federal law calling for more than $100 billion in support to infrastructure projects nationwide is “a game changer.”  She gave an example of what will be funded: development of electric-powered school buses.

In the Walker years, the DNR removed references to climate change from its web site. Cole said, “We put climate change back on the DNR web site.” He added, “I’m here to tell you I’m not going to be silent on climate change, nor are our employees.”

Cole emphasized the importance of a clean environment to Wisconsin in terms of economic impact.  “This economy that we count on is linked to what is going on in the environment,” he said.

The difficulties of balancing environmental regulation and the needs of agricultural work were a concern of both speakers.

Strifling asked if agriculture can co-exist with environmental regulation. Shore said, “There needs to be a reckoning” about the costs to the environment of some activities. For example, she pointed to problems created by run-off from fields in the watershed around Toledo, Ohio. “I don’t think agriculture is yet assuming the cost” of its impact in instances such as that.

There are things that can be done to improve such situations, she said. “But it’s a challenge, it’s a social challenge,” she said. Political will is needed in seeking improvement.

Cole said, “We have to work with agriculture. We cannot leave agriculture behind when it comes to the technology and the innovations” that can reduce environmental problems.

He pointed to issues resulting from large agricultural operations known as CAFOs in Kewaunee County, east of Green Bay. Cole said, “I’m excited what the future holds because the conversations that I have with agriculture are that ‘we want to be responsible, but we also run a business.’ That nexus, folks, is where the DNR lies.”

A video recording of the one-hour session may be watched by clicking here.






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