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Spot checks of water pollution permits aren’t enough

Dec 08, 2016

On Monday, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp published an editorial in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to try and clarify the direction of the agency’s reorganization plan. Media reports on the plan announced earlier this month varied, especially with respect to how our state’s largest livestock operations – concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs – would be permitted to manage the massive amounts of manure waste they produce and spread on land each year.

In order to counter public concerns and speculation over farmers writing their own permits, Stepp addressed the agency’s proposal to turn over preparation of a major component of large CAFO water pollution discharge permits - Nutrient Management Plans, or NMPs - to paid consultants. Here is how Secretary Stepp described the plan in the Journal Sentinel:  

“What we are actually proposing to do is create an assurance program consisting of qualified consultants and contractors who have a high level of expertise in the area. If we receive a permit application with information submitted by one of these consultants in the program, we can be assured their information is complete and correct and can go ahead and develop a permit.”

First, some basics on how pollution permits currently work for CAFOs:

For those unfamiliar with large livestock pollution permitting, it’s important to clarify the way the DNR’s water pollution and waste management program currently works. A large CAFO water discharge permit is (1) a document with general terms and conditions, and (2) a nutrient management plan that outlines how the CAFO plans to manage manure and prevent it from entering lakes and streams or our groundwater.

The DNR prepares the document with general terms and conditions, which don’t vary much among large CAFOs. The NMP, however, is typically drafted by a consultant paid by the CAFO and includes all site-specific details about how the CAFO will store, manage, and land apply manure. The NMP contains the guts of the permit.

To be clear: a CAFO NMP is a central part of its water discharge permit, as required by both state and federal law. The NMP is already typically prepared by a consultant paid by the CAFO. DNR staff must review the application and NMP and assure that it complies with the law before issuing a WPDES permit that incorporates the NMP.

So what’s new about Stepp’s reorganization plan and what does it mean for CAFOs?

Creating an assurance program consisting of qualified consultants and contractors to prepare NMPs:

While we haven’t seen the details of this plan, this actually seems like a pretty good idea. If DNR gets complete applications and NMPs from CAFOs by experienced engineers, it can mean less work for DNR staff (i.e., saving taxpayers money). DNR staff is already stretched so thin that they often don’t have time to fully review an NMP, let alone go back and forth to fix a grossly deficient one during the permitting process.

The better the first draft of the NMP submitted by a CAFO consultant, the less work required of the DNR staff person reviewing and approving it. DNR staff should then have more time to conduct thorough review of application materials and NMPs, conduct inspections, and respond to complaints.

Having DNR staff “spot check” NMPs prepared by consultants in the assurance program:

While the details remain unclear, Stepp is proposing that when an approved consultant submits an application and NMP, DNR “can be assured their information is complete and correct.” That sounds a lot like rubber-stamping the NMP without the in-depth and thorough agency staff review for accuracy and compliance with state and federal law.

Professional consultants are already preparing NMPs, and citizens contact Midwest Environmental Advocates for help to watchdog their details. When citizens concerned with new or expanding livestock operations in their community hire independent engineers to review proposed NMPs, they have often found errors in the plans such as failure to identify wetlands or waterways in fields, including land for which the CAFO isn’t authorized to spread manure, and failure to identify areas with shallow soils.

The public needs to know that our DNR staff will have the time and autonomy to do more than spot check drafts of a CAFO’s pollution plans.

The lesson Wisconsin should take away from its drinking water crisis in Kewaunee County, nitrate contamination in the Central Sands, and nutrient pollution degrading lakes and streams is that we need careful state oversight to protect our water resources from pollution and agricultural runoff and waste. That means we need adequate DNR staff to review and verify the accuracy of all NMPs that are the central component of CAFO permits.

If Secretary Stepp plans to delegate that task to approved consultants and oversee NMPs only through “spot audits and regular check ins” the public is right to fear this will only make things worse, not better.

/ tagged: water, government, drinking water, agriculture, wetlands