Exposing lawbreakers who could put your health at risk
JEFFERSON- To John Thielemann, his piece of land in the heart of Jefferson County is a little slice of heaven.
He lives in a cream-colored brick farmhouse and raises a couple of goats in a pen steps from the back door.
Though he never knew he had reason to worry about his neighbor.
Thielemann's neighbor is a hulking Valero ethanol plant that has been labeled a chronic violator of federal clean air law by the Environmental Protection Agency.
"The DNR has never said anything about that," Thielemann said. "We've never had any information on that whatsoever."
In fact, the Valero plant has been such a problem for so long the EPA has it on a list tracking hundreds of Clean Air Act violators.
The "watch list" of clean air act violators was created by the as a way to keep tabs on "recidivist and chronically noncomplying facilities," as the EPA described in a 2008 report.
The list was an internal document for EPA until July 2011, when it was made public for the first time.
Violation can mean a lot of things to the EPA, including improper permitting or missing paperwork.
Facilities like the Jefferson County Valero plant are on the other end of the scale.
Under Valero and previous owner Renew Energy, the plant here spent three solid years in violation of the Clean Air Act.
It was cited in 2009 by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for 39 problems, including uncontrolled fermentation emissions, failure to follow a dust plan and exceeding monthly emissions.
A spokesman for Valero declined to answer specific questions or address any on-going violations at the facility, explaining the case was still under investigation.
In a statement, the spokesman said "once [the investigations] are resolved, we can discuss them.
Smaller facilities also appeared on the EPA's list.
The Reliable Plating Works facility on Milwaukee's south side appears on the watch list as recently as December, 2011.
In an interview and subsequent phone call and e-mail, management at Reliable did not understand why the EPA would label them a chronic violator of the law.
Issues at Reliable were detailed in a 2009 violation notice from the Wisconsin DNR.
That document shows the facility was cited for not documenting how it prevented dangerous fumes and keeping inaccurate compliance reports.
Reliable Plating Works management said it was under the impression all of the outstanding violations were addressed.
To State Rep. Brett Hulsey (D-Madison), the EPA list shows where problem companies are and illustrates how slowly the DNR holds them responsible.
"We know who the worst people are," Hulsey said. "These are your chronic bad actors, bad polluters that we need to focus on and get cleaned up."
Case in point, Wisconsin was consistently ranked among the top ten states for chronic violations and twice was in the top five.
Only big industrial states like Ohio, Illinois, Louisiana and Texas had more businesses on the watch list.
Hulsey also blames DNR for taking its time resolving cases.
Some Wisconsin companies on the "watch list" have issues dating back three years.
"You need cops on the beat," Hulsey said. "That's DNR's job to go out and enforce those laws."
A spokesperson for DNR blamed those delays on "complicating legal issues" that underlie each case.
He said for many companies on the "watch list" the DNR said underlying issues have been addressed.
As the "watch list" gained public interest since its unveiling last summer, the number of Wisconsin companies on it has shrunk - from 21 in July, 2011 to 17 in December.
Though the Valero facility in Jefferson County remains.
It is currently under investigation by the DNR, EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice.
The plant's neighbor, John Thielemann, hopes making this information public prods Valero and regulators to finally resolve the case.
"If it's not widely advertised, then you know, it makes it that much more to not to have to be addressed," he said.