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DNR’s CAFO Pollution Permit Decision Leaves Groundwater at Risk

Sep 14, 2015

On Friday, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources issued a final decision to approve a water pollution permit for an industrial livestock operation expansion in Kewaunee County. The agency refused to uphold portions of an October 2014 Administrative Law Judge decision ordering the agency to use its authority under state law to limit the number of animals in the facility and to require a groundwater monitoring plan for pollution from manure landspreading. Petitioners in this case will review options for appeal.

At the heart of the DNR action and supporting opinions from the Wisconsin Department of Justice is a dispute regarding the DNR’s power to require the company to impose animal limits or groundwater monitoring. According to the DOJ, because terms such as “animal unit limit” or “offsite landspreading” do not appear in state water pollution statutes verbatim, the DNR doesn’t have the authority to require these kinds of limits or monitoring in industrial livestock operations’ pollution permits.

Yet the DNR is clearly required in state statutes to impose maximums on pollution discharges (in this case, manure spreading) or limit the sources of pollution (in this case, cows) when necessary to comply with basic federal and state laws intended to protect our state’s water quality.

“We disagree with the opinion of the DOJ on the authority of the DNR in using reasonable strategies to regulate industrial livestock operations’ waste,” said attorney Sarah Geers. “The DNR narrowly interprets state statutes in matters of the public’s welfare and interests in keeping our water resources clean. Yet the DNR broadly exercises its authority and disregards court decisions when it is in the interests of industry. This is not a legal problem. It is a problem of the influence of politics and industry over the execution of laws that protect the public from unmonitored and unlimited pollution in our water.”

The DNR’s delayed timeline for interpreting the October 2014 Administrative Law Judge’s opinion has left Kewaunee County residents waiting on resolution of an issue as basic and crucial as daily access to clean drinking water. The DNR hasn’t provided enough of a legal argument for its action and took nearly a year to flip-flop on its opinion of its own authority.

Ultimately, the DNR’s “final agency decision” isn’t really final. It punts the responsibility of fighting for agency accountability back to the citizens who would have to spend more time and money to dispute this legal question in court. The DNR’s change of position to disregard a court order and the DOJ’s opinion on the agency’s authority to do so do not have legal merit and Kewaunee County petitioners would have good cause to argue on appeal.

/ tagged: water, agriculture, rural, drinking water