Read the full article by Chris Hubbuch (Wisconsin State Journal)

“On March 13, nearly two years after first ordering the Wisconsin Air National Guard to clean up hazardous chemicals at the Madison airport, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources issued a new set of deadlines.

Less than a month later, with a statewide health emergency hindering virtually all activity, the DNR granted the guard yet another extension to address the pollution working its way into Starkweather Creek, Lake Monona and the groundwater that feeds Madison’s public wells.

In Marinette, Tyco Fire Products last month stopped testing hundreds of private wells contaminated with the same fluorinated chemicals, known as PFAS.

Those are two examples of how the COVID-19 pandemic response has hindered environmental monitoring and cleanup. But a lack of transparency measures make it impossible to know the full impact of state and federal emergency policies.

In the early days of the pandemic response, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the federal Environmental Protection Agency each issued temporary orders that loosened some of the usual requirements.

The DNR said it would prioritize imminent threats to public health while pulling back routine field inspections and audits. While saying regulated entities ‘should make every effort to comply,’ the DNR created a system for businesses to request waivers from monitoring and cleanup requirements.

‘We said call us and we’ll work through this individually,’ said Darsi Foss, the agency’s environmental management administrator.

The EPA announced far more sweeping relaxation of environmental rules, allowing factories, power plants, refineries and other regulated industries to decide if they could comply with regulations.

Nicole Cantello, president of the union representing employees of the EPA’s Great Lakes region, called the federal policy “a gift to polluters.”

‘I think that policy was absolutely unprecedented in the history of EPA,’ said Cantello, an enforcement attorney who has been with the agency for three decades but was speaking on behalf of the union. ‘No one came to Region 5 and said we need relief during the pandemic.’

While companies are encouraged to report any instances of noncompliance under the temporary enforcement policy, the EPA says if that is ‘not reasonably practicable’ they should document the lapse internally and tell the agency about it ‘upon request.’

The Natural Resources Defense Council has sued the EPA in an effort to require the agency to track and disclose any lapses in monitoring and reporting, which it said leaves neighboring and downstream communities unable to react to spills or air pollution.

Cantello said the policy also leaves the EPA in the dark.

‘You don’t know what’s going out in the water if someone isn’t reporting — that’s what really is dangerous,’ she said. ‘You don’t know what you don’t know.’

In response to a question about the number of non-compliance reports, the agency provided a statement, saying ‘as a policy, EPA does not comment on enforcement sensitive matters’…”