Midwest Environmental Advocates is a nonprofit environmental law center that works for healthy water, air, land and government for this generation and the next. We believe that every citizen has the potential to make a difference.

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Richland Center Renewable Energy

— Midwest Environmental Advocates represented a group of citizens near Richland Center who oppose another discharge of polluted wastewater to the Lower Wisconsin River system.

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Victory! In late February 2013, a group of individuals concerned about water quality in the lower Wisconsin River successfully reached an agreement with Richland Center Renewable Energy, LLC (RCRE) to reduce pollution in area waterways. The settlement agreement includes a plan for the renewable energy company to reduce the impact of phosphorus pollution from its facility as well as from area nonpoint sources through projects implemented Friends of the Lower Wisconsin River (FLOW) and Richland County Land Conservation Department. Read the full press release.

The agreement required Richland Center Renewable Energy to provide substantial funds for nonpoint source phosphorus pollution reduction measures. A substantial portion of these funds were used by FLOW to establish a conservation easement buffer to limit the phosphorus pollution in the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway. FLOW used these funds to secure a conservation easement for an 11-acre buffer adjacent to Norton Slough. Much more needs to be done, but preliminary data suggests improved water quality for the slough. The agreement also required RCRE to install phosphorus removal technology by the end of 2013 and to make any additional improvements to meet phosphorus requirements by January 1, 2015.

The Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway, Inc. (FLOW) provides a grassroots voice for the protection and enhancement of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway.  FLOW supports a broad spectrum of Riverway activities including natural resource protection, environmental research, river education, cultural and historic preservation, and community support.

Case Summary

Richland Center, Wisconsin is home to several cheese processing facilities that each have their own water pollution permits to discharge wastewater to the Lower Wisconsin River or its tributaries. In addition to these permits, the facilities send some of their wastewater to the Richland Center Water Treatment Works for treatment. Since 2009, the city’s treatment center has been in repeated violation of its water pollution permit limits. The city provided documentation to the Department of Natural Resources that the violations have been caused by increased pollution from these cheese facilities.

The proposed solution to this problem is Richland Center Renewable Energy (RCRE), an anaerobic digester that takes whey permeate and other dairy bi-products from cheese facilities and treats it with microorganisms in order to reduce waste and create energy. While this is a good idea, this facility still has wastewater to discharge.

The DNR issued a waste pollution permit to RCRE in early 2012. Neighbors of these cheese facilities and the proposed RCRE facility were concerned about what another water pollution discharge will mean for the Pine River and the Lower Wisconsin River, waterbodies that will receive the wastewater pollution. These neighbors enjoy fishing, swimming and boating in the Pine River and the Wisconsin River and enjoy the diverse fish and wildlife that live in and around the river corridors.

Midwest Environmental Advocates helped these citizens challenge this permit. Under current law, the DNR permit is illegal because it authorizes RCRE to discharge wastewater upstream of the Lower Wisconsin River without a sufficient antidegradation review, authorizes a new discharge of phosphorus to a waterway that currently exceeds the phosphorus water quality criteria, and authorizes a compliance schedule for a new pollution discharge to achieve phosphorus water quality criteria.