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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New Report on Kewaunee County’s Water Crisis

Jun 11, 2015

Midwest Environmental Advocates applauds yesterday’s release of the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project’s investigative report, The Rap Sheets: Industrial Dairies of Kewaunee County Wisconsin. The report is based on nearly a year of work to obtain and review open records requests of complaints regarding the mismanagement of industrial livestock operations’ manure waste and violations of clean water laws that illustrate what a judge recently called a “massive regulatory failure” in Wisconsin.

The report is timely for all Wisconsin citizens, but especially for Kewaunee County residents. In September 2014, the Kewaunee County board approved a public health and groundwater protection ordinance limiting winter and early spring waste spreading on thin soils over karst bedrock. On April 7, over 80 percent of those who voted supported the groundwater protection ordinance in a referendum. Because 30 percent of tested drinking water wells in Kewaunee County have unsafe levels of bacteria, high nitrate levels or both, citizens formally requested help from the Environmental Protection Agency under the Safe Drinking Water Act to address the public health risks associated with manure waste from concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

Since the filing of the SDWA petition with the EPA, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the EPA have met with CAFO owners, local government, and Petitioners to discuss how to respond to this crisis. We hope these talks are a step in the right direction. But Kewaunee County residents with E. coli and nitrate contaminated drinking wells need action immediately. This report suggests that the DNR must address CAFO permit enforcement in order to prevent the problem from getting worse.                       

Policy makers, enforcement officials and the public can learn the following valuable lessons from the SRAP report:

State budget cuts to the Department of Natural Resources and County Conservation Departments have a direct impact on protecting Kewaunee County waters.

The report documents the current lack of DNR capacity to effectively monitor and enforce permits designed to keep manure out of our public waters. In less than 10 years, CAFOs have proliferated from fewer than 10 facilities to over 250 across Wisconsin, an increase of 2400%. Meanwhile, the number of staff in the DNR to monitor CAFOs has remained flat.

In each state budget cycle, county conservation departments fight to maintain funding and staffing levels. The DNR often tells citizens who suffer the impacts of CAFOs that the agency doesn’t have the resources, staff or data needed to better protect the public from manure-driven pollution in family drinking water wells or the waters in which we swim and fish. The state Joint Finance Committee recently decided not to make cuts to the funding for county conservation staff as deeply as in Governor Walker’s proposed state budget. However, the governor and legislative leaders still plan to further diminish staff and resources available to the DNR and counties. These shortsighted cuts put the public at an even greater risk of harm.

When CAFO-related pollution occurs, citizen complaints drive state investigations that stretch our underresourced DNR beyond its capacity. County Conservation Department staff members then become the first responders to spill events and other pollution reports by local residents. Kewaunee County – with the second highest number of CAFOs in the state, second to Brown County – is without a conservation warden and must rely on action from wardens near Green Bay to respond to spills or winter manure spreading violations.

Simply, triaged responses to CAFO pollution fall short of the proactive water quality protection that Wisconsinites expect and deserve.

Public access to open records is an essential part of protecting our health from poorly managed factory farms.

Once SRAP did the time-consuming work of examining the official DNR files on the CAFOs in Kewaunee County, they also learned through open records requests that the files were incomplete. Additional information discovered through formal written requests revealed critical data not contained in the paper files. The group then uncovered more information about CAFO-related pollution from DNR emails, including unsound practices that were never documented in hard-copy DNR files.

Families are literally getting sick from severe water pollution, and citizens struggle to fill the gaps in agency enforcement. Public health officials and citizens in harm’s way shouldn’t have to embark on a months-long quest for critical information about a massive industry as they work to solve the drinking water crisis in Kewaunee County.

Because SRAP could take on the work of requesting DNR records under Wisconsin’s open records laws, the public now can read information that took nearly a year to obtain and review. However, it shouldn’t be a full-time job to conduct a paper chase of official files, email and other unrecorded citizen complaints to get a complete picture of clean water violations. Citizens should not have to play a guessing game in order to request accurate, comprehensive information from the DNR.

Owners of CAFOs say they are the most regulated farms, but regulations become meaningless when enforcement is down and repeat offenders continue to operate.

The report demonstrates that even in the presence of egregious violations that endanger public health and water quality, the DNR rarely proactively monitors industrial dairies. When the agency does document significant problems, there is little or no meaningful enforcement to deter future violations. Enforcement is the key to compelling compliance with water protection and public health laws.  

While the DNR may repeatedly notify CAFOs of permit violations, the state rarely fines even the worst offenders and may, in fact, consider these operations in “substantial compliance” with their permits. Citizens too often find, after careful study of open records, that operations with “clean” records of compliance have repeat permit deficiencies and violations.

This is what life with Kewaunee County water is like.

The Rap Sheets are an important next step toward addressing Kewaunee County’s water crisis. But we hope that we can all read between the lines of the information presented in The Rap Sheets. No matter what the environmental concern is facing citizens we talk to all over the state, one theme constantly arises: people think their government protects their clean air and water. People think their government is on the job, not allowing poison to get into our water or chemicals into our air to make our families sick. The Rap Sheets show that this is simply not the case.

This is an issue of a fundamental betrayal of something as important as the water our children drink. The people of Kewaunee County have been let down by public officials who can’t or won’t act on valid complaints of manure mismanagement in their community. In 2015, people in Wisconsin are facing third world water conditions. And it is beyond egregious that special interest politics trump basic public health protections. It is time to listen to the people of our rural communities who need our help, not lobbyists who speak for the wealthy few who seek to exploit our natural resources for short term gain. Listen to Lynda Cochart – this is what life with Kewaunee County water is like.

The full report can be downloaded from the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project’s website and has recommendations about some of the policy and enforcement actions that could help to fix this “massive regulatory failure.” Thanks also Family Farm Defenders and Kewaunee CARES for their involvement and guidance on this groundbreaking report.

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