MADISON, Wisconsin — Wastewater plants, paper mills and food processors could take up to two decades to comply with Wisconsin's phosphorus discharge limits under a bill approved Thursday in the state Assembly
The measure wouldn't give so-called point polluters — facilities that pump phosphorus directly into state waters — a free pass, though. It would impose progressively tougher limits on them every five years and require them to participate in other phosphorus reduction projects.
"This really is a pollution control bill," said Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, one of the bill's chief sponsors, said during a news conference before the Assembly floor session began. "It just creates a new option for compliance."
The Assembly passed the measure 76-19 with no debate. The state Senate passed the measure earlier this week.
It now goes to Gov. Scott Walker. His spokesman was non-committal when asked whether the governor supports the bill, saying only that Walker would evaluate it.
Biologists believe phosphorus, a chemical found in fertilizer and manure, can cause ugly algae blooms that can deplete water oxygen levels, killing fish. The blooms also can cause health problems in people.
The Department of Natural Resources' board in 2010 adopted sweeping restrictions on phosphorus discharge in hopes of slowing algae growth and preserving water-based tourism. The restrictions limit phosphorus runoff from farm fields and create per-liter limits in rivers, streams and lakes.
Municipalities and manufacturers say it could cost them tens of millions of dollars to upgrade their facilities to meet the limits, driving up rates. The restrictions offer them the option of seeking up to three five-year exemptions — allowing them to exceed the limits for a total of 15 years — if they finance and manage projects with farmers to reduce runoff from their fields.
The DNR began implementing the plan in late 2012. Now more municipalities and businesses are coming up against the restrictions as their current five-year discharge permits expire, renewing their complaints about the cost. They also contend they're not in a position to manage agricultural runoff reduction projects.
The bill calls for asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to approve a statewide exemption from the limits. That would allow dischargers to ask the state for up to four five-year exemptions without showing any individual hardship, giving them 20 years to come into compliance. However, each exemption would carry a progressively stricter discharge limit.
Polluters also would have to choose one of three reduction alternatives as part of the exemption: pay the county to reduce phosphorus, invest in its own reduction project or agree to fund someone else's reduction process in the same watershed. They also could continue to comply for 20 years by pursuing projects to ease agricultural runoff.
"We can ramp up our phosphorous treatment over the course of several years, rather than be faced with one huge capital expense up front," Burlington City Administrator Kevin Lahner said in written remarks to the Senate committee. "Under the bill, we will also assist in reducing non-point sources of phosphorous, which is by and large the largest contributor to phosphorous pollution in our rivers and streams."
Amber Meyer Smith, government relations director for environmental advocacy group Clean Wisconsin, said the organization is worried dischargers might abandon reduction projects already underway in favor of the new alternatives.
"We have ... concerns that some local efforts to achieve phosphorus cleanup could be undermined," she said.