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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has informed the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources that its permit system to control water pollution doesn’t meet standards set by the 1972 Clean Water Act.

The EPA’s action is a victory for the Clean Water Action Council of Northeastern Wisconsin, which has opposed for years the state’s water pollution permit to the Georgia-Pacific paper mill in Green Bay. The council claimed the permit, which expired last year, allowed unlimited discharges of mercury and increased amounts of phosphorous into the Fox River.

In a letter to DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, the EPA’s Regional Administrator Susan Hedman wrote that there are “numerous apparent omissions and deviations between Wisconsin’s current statute and regulations and federal requirements.”

Hedman said the EPA has not approved elements of Wisconsin’s permits that “are less stringent or comprehensive than federally required.” The EPA requires states to meet at least the minimum standards in the Clean Water Act.

“The EPA is telling the DNR that Wisconsin can’t ignore the Clean Water Act,” said Dean Hoegger, president of the Clean Water Action Council.

The EPA approved the state’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System in 1974 but the council and the National Wildlife Federation claimed that the state fell below federal standards. Earlier this year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court decided on a 5-2 vote that the DNR had no obligation to comply with the minimum standards unless the EPA required it.

“The permit (for Georgia-Pacific) fails to protect water quality,” said Betsy Lawton, the Madison-based attorney who represented the environmental groups. “If Wisconsin can’t protect its citizens through adequate pollution permits, then the EPA will.”

Mike Kawleski, public affairs manager at Georgia-Pacific, said it is too early to determine how the EPA action will affect permits.

“The EPA and DNR will have to decide how it will,” Kawleski said.

Georgia-Pacific’s discharge permit expired in 2010 but a new permit has not been issued, leaving the company to operate under the former permit.

Bill Cosh, spokesman for the DNR, said the agency is reviewing the EPA’s letter and will have a response before the Oct. 15 deadline.

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