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Industrial livestock waste: Wisconsin’s own inconvenient truth

Nov 20, 2014

To shamelessly plagiarize Al Gore, Wisconsin has its own Inconvenient Truth: collateral damage from agriculture is the primary cause of massive and growing water quality problems in Wisconsin. In my time as the former Chief of Runoff Management at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, I’ve never seen the extent of the groundwater quality problems in Kewaunee County which has driven citizens to take action where their government has failed to do so.

After a two-year battle, the courageous citizens of Kewaunee County, with the assistance of Midwest Environmental Advocates, successfully challenged the terms of a water pollution permit issued by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to Kinnard Farms, Inc., a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO.) The ruling (PDF) will result in better protection for the drinking water supply wells of Kewaunee County from pollution by CAFOs.

This decision comes on the heels of a petition by six environmental organizations to the EPA asking it to take action on the groundwater pollution problem in Kewaunee County. This water crisis has now become so severe that we are asking for federal intervention because our state has failed to act.

There certainly may be several contributors to the groundwater quality problems in this area. But Kewaunee County has one of the highest densities of CAFOs in any county in the state. Of reported private well samples in Kewaunee County, 30% have unsafe levels of nitrates and/or bacteria, and that rate is even higher in some towns.

With the county’s rate of well contamination and the concentration of CAFOs, operators cannot avoid responsibility by pointing fingers at the small farmer down the road. CAFOs are regulated much more than small farmers because they are large, industrial operations that produce staggering amounts of waste. For perspective, Kinnard’s expansion will house over 7,000 dairy cows, producing over 75 million gallons of manure per year. And that is just one of 15 large CAFOs in Kewaunee County.

These water issues aren’t abstract problems: this pollution exists now and is intruding on peoples’ lives. One Kewaunee County resident whose well is polluted with salmonella and nitrates said, “realize we can’t drink, brush our teeth, wash dishes, wash food… we can’t use our water. Our water is on our mind all the time. If drinking it doesn’t kill us, the stress of having it on our mind and worrying about it all the time will.”

The presiding judge who issued the ruling in permit challenge referred to the groundwater quality conditions and the DNR’s performance when he wrote, “…the proliferation of contaminated wells represents a massive regulatory failure.”

Rather than admitting her agency’s failure in Kewaunee County and proposing emergency corrective actions, the Secretary of our CAFO-friendly DNR called the ruling “editorializing” and characterized the judge’s words as, “…an opportunity for misinformation and confusion to take place.” The Dairy Business Association, the lobbying arm of the CAFO industry, has blamed water quality problems on smaller farms and contended that the ruling, “accomplished nothing.” These statements are shameful attempts to divert attention from the DNR’s and the CAFO industry’s failure to address the serious, life-threatening groundwater pollution in Kewaunee County.

Citizens cannot and should not have to challenge every water pollution permit in court. But our current state government values short-term economic gain for the few more than it values water quality or public health. Though our state’s biggest livestock operations and their lobbyists say CAFOs are family owned and trying their best to manage their waste, Wisconsin cannot “feed the world” while destroying our water.

The citizens of Kewaunee County have been neither misinformed nor confused. They are rightfully afraid to drink their water. They have now accomplished through litigation what DNR and the livestock industry would not do. The problem is nowhere near solved by fixing this one CAFO permit, but it is a step in the right direction.

- Gordon Stevenson, former Chief of Runoff Management, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources; current Midwest Environmental Advocates Board of Directors, Secretary

Read more about the challenge to the DNR's permit approval for Kinnard Farms, Inc.

/ tagged: water, government, rural, agriculture, drinking water, land, phosphorus