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Safe Drinking Water Act Petition to EPA

— Kewaunee County citizens formally request federal action on groundwater contamination problems for people who live near the state's highest concentration of industrial livestock facilities.

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The Kewaunee County Land & Water Conservation Department shared final report of the Groundwater Collaboration Workgroups on June 21.

Read the full report online.

Case Summary

Safe Drinking Water Act Petition

On October 22, 2014, environmental protection groups formally requested federal action on groundwater contamination issues in Kewaunee County.

Midwest Environmental Advocates joined Clean Wisconsin, Environmental Integrity Project, Midwest Environmental Defense Center, Kewaunee CARES and the Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin to jointly file a written Petition for Emergency Action detailing the need for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to exercise its emergency powers under the Safe Drinking Water Act and other federal pollution cleanup laws. These laws empower the EPA to step in to provide safe drinking water in an area where contamination poses serious public health threats.

Petitioners asked the EPA to investigate the source of contamination, take action to address the source of the problem, and provide clean drinking water to residents. The EPA took similar action to help manage nitrates in the groundwater of the Lower Yakima Valley in Washington State in 2012. The petition also builds upon ongoing local efforts after the September 2014 Kewaunee County Board of Supervisors unanimous vote and the April 2015 election in which all local municipalities voted with strong majorities on a county ordinance that will limit winter manure spreading in the areas most susceptible to groundwater pollution.

Portions of Kewaunee County are especially susceptible to groundwater pollution because they have shallow soils overlaying fractured carbonate bedrock (karst), resulting in the rapid movement of contaminants, including bacteria and nitrates. Even a single exposure to Salmonella or Campylobacter jejuni, pathogenic bacteria which have been found in some of Kewaunee County’s wells, have been known to cause serious illness or death. High nitrate levels pose significant risks to children and pregnant women including blue baby syndrome, a life threatening condition that limits the blood’s ability to carry oxygen to the brain.

Despite well-documented pollution, including a comprehensive task force report conducted in 2007, Kewaunee County’s groundwater issues have been largely untouched by local and state officials throughout the past decade. Thirty percent of tested drinking water wells have unsafe levels of pollutants associated with agriculture including bacteria, high nitrate levels or both. Agriculture is not the sole cause of the contamination but is a major contributor. Intensive agricultural practices are on the rise in Kewaunee County and northeast Wisconsin has the highest concentration of large livestock confinements in the state. Records show that the animals on Kewaunee’s largest farms, combined, produce the biological waste equivalent of 900,000 humans annually, about nine times the size of the population of the City of Green Bay. Industrial livestock operations spread nearly 340 million gallons of liquid manure annually throughout the county.

Midwest Environmental Advocates is currently representing Kewaunee County citizens in a challenge to a water discharge permit for an expansion at one of the Kewaunee County’s largest CAFOs, in part to address the lack of monitoring in an area so susceptible to groundwater contamination that it is already heavily polluted.

Groundwater Collaboration Workgroups in response to Safe Drinking Water Act Petition

For almost a year, Midwest Environmental Advocates was among the stakeholders who participated in workgroups convened by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to address the water quality crisis in Kewaunee County.

The DNR convened these workgroups, in part, in response to a petition by environmental organizations to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requesting emergency action to address Kewaunee County’s groundwater crisis and to provide clean drinking water to residents. The petition, filed with the EPA in October, 2014, formally requested federal action to provide clean drinking water to Kewaunee County residents because state and local agencies have not done enough to address the problem.

The workgroups are a first step, but Kewaunee County residents need more. Kewaunee County residents need their government to provide reliable access to clean drinking water because government agencies have failed to protect their aquifer. Residents need the DNR to do more than convene meetings and develop voluntary practices that may, if implemented, reduce pollution from large concentrated animal feeding operations and other agricultural producers. The County needs the EPA to step in and order immediate, enforceable actions to provide clean drinking water and prevent further groundwater pollution.

Groundwater Collaboration Workgroup Documents

NEW - Final, June 2016 report of the groundwater collaboration workgroups

DNR presentation with background information on the purpose of the workgroups and what they were hoping to accomplish

Short-Term Solutions Work Group – This group reviewed and defined possible solutions for individuals in Kewaunee County and beyond who have wells that are contaminated by bacteria and/or nitrates. The recommendations made address options for residents whose private wells become contaminated to quickly and efficiently attain a safe drinking water source and to potentially identify the source of the contamination.

Sensitive Areas/Best Management Practices Work Group – This group’s goal is to define sensitive areas that are high risk for groundwater pollution and to recommend agricultural management practices that, if implemented, should help reduce or eliminate groundwater pollution and associated public health risk within these sensitive areas.

Compliance Work Group – This group has reviewed and evaluated the county’s and state’s current compliance structure regarding regulated activities that affect groundwater in Kewaunee County, including manure application by animal feeding operations, well installation/compliance, and septic system compliance. The recommendations made addressed gaps in the current structure and, if implemented, should improve water quality.

Communications Work Group – This group reviewed recommendations from the other three work groups, compliled a final report, and discussed strategies of how best to communicate this information to stakeholders and the public.

Alternative Technologies – This group has not yet been convened, but will focus on identifying different farming methods and manure treatment technologies that would protect the county’s aquifer.