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Disputed expansion of dairy watched for statewide impact

Since 2000, the number of Wisconsin dairy CAFOs has more than quadrupled and now stands at 222 facilities. (Photo by Kate Golden, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism)

In a Green Bay hearing beginning Tuesday, a controversial attempt to expand a dairy farm set to become the fifth largest in Wisconsin will be challenged in a case that could have a far-reaching impact on how Wisconsin regulates industrial-size livestock farms.

Five neighbors of Kinnard Farms Inc. in northeastern Wisconsin are arguing that the state Department of Natural Resources should allow the farm to expand but tighten environmental protection by requiring surface and groundwater monitoring and limiting the number of cows.

The neighbors, represented by the Madison-based environmental law firm Midwest Environmental Advocates, allege that the DNR has permitted Kinnard’s expansion without assuring that the farm’s discharges would meet state water quality standards or allowing sufficient public input.

“It’s a big test case for all of us,” said Bob Clarke, a founder of Friends of the Central Sands, an environmental advocacy group that is suing for water quality and quantity monitoring at Richfield Dairy, a large farm in Adams County.

The DNR is defending its approval of the Kinnard Farms permit, which will allow the farm to grow by 55% -- from 5,627 to 8,710 animal units, about 6,200 cattle. The farm, classified as a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, because of its large size, is located in Kewaunee County in the town of Lincoln.

Gretchen Wheat, the DNR engineer who led a review of the farm’s plans, said in written testimony that its design will be “among the most protective designs of any CAFO in the state.”

The petitioners contend that the permit’s standards are not explicit enough.

“Numeric limits are the only limits that are enforceable,” said Byron Shaw, an emeritus University of Wisconsin professor and soil and water expert, in written testimony for the petitioners.

The Kinnard and Richfield cases are among the first challenges to CAFO permits thus far, said Mary Anne Lowndes, the DNR’s runoff section chief. The DNR has never turned down a permit.

Case ‘could potentially change things’

DNR officials said the two cases could help clarify the limits of the agency’s power to impose conditions on CAFOs.

The Kinnard outcome “could potentially change things for the future, if they find that our permitting process isn’t strong enough to protect the environment,” said Casey Jones, a DNR agricultural runoff specialist for northeastern Wisconsin.

The state requires CAFOs to apply for five-year permits. The farms submit plans to show how they will deal with manure -- Kinnard proposes it will produce up to 70 million gallons a year -- without polluting water. Other impacts such as dust, smell, traffic, road impacts or noise are not covered by the permit.

Both sides agree the case has worsened division among residents.

“We’ve reached out to some of the people who really have issues with the way we farm. It hasn’t been successful,” co-owner Lee Kinnard said.

“I think this case reflects the feelings and frustrations that people have had for a long time regarding permits that aren’t protective of the environment,” MEA staff attorney Sarah Williams said.

The state’s main dairy lobbying group, the Dairy Business Association, did not respond to a request for an interview.

Administrative law Judge Jeffrey Boldt will preside over the contested case hearing, in which each side presents witnesses for cross-examination and rebuttal, scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 11 through Friday, Feb. 14. The public will be able to comment at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.

As CAFOs multiply, so do worries

Since 2000, the number of Wisconsin dairy CAFOs has more than quadrupled and now stands at 222 facilities. About 30 more applications are pending, according to the DNR.

Kewaunee County, with 14 permitted dairy CAFOs, has some of the densest livestock farming in the state. At the same time, its landscape of thin soils over porous karst bedrock is particularly vulnerable to groundwater pollution.

Opponents of the Kinnard expansion say the state’s regulations and enforcement have been too weak to protect their water.

They provide pictures of manure-tainted water flooding houses, or runoff streaming across people’s properties. They mention Casco Creek, in other sections a blue-ribbon trout stream, now running brown instead of clear.

They point, also, to the town of Lincoln, where half the wells have tested unsafe for nitrates or bacteria and hormonal water has been found in some wells. The source of contamination is often unclear and can include leaky septic systems or bad well caps, but University of Wisconsin researchers have estimated that 90% of nitrate contamination comes from farms.

The farm has received three notices of noncompliance, the least serious level of offense, since 2010 for land spreading violations, as well as the 2010 notice of violation for its manure lagoon overflowing.

Kewaunee County conservationist Andy Wallande said the complaints about Kinnard may simply indicate the extra scrutiny it has received from neighbors.

“Let’s just say I’ve seen worse,” he said.

Kinnard: ‘We’re very confident’

Some wells, like neighbor and petitioner Lynda Cochart’s, have been found with the bacterium E. coli, which indicates human or animal waste.

“My granddaughter, I don’t even let her wash her hands in the water,” Cochart said. “I make her use boiled water -- there’s always two kettles of boiled water on my stove.”

Kinnard declined to discuss details of the case, before the hearing, but said his third-generation farm was committed to protecting the environment. He himself lives in the front yard of his dairy, he said.

“Doing anything that would in any way jeopardize our community and our resources would be very self-destructive,” Kinnard said. “We love and we live in this local community. We take our responsibility very, very seriously.”

Kinnard said he believes the controversy stems from farmers failing to communicate their stewardship efforts.

“We’re very confident on the way this facility has been designed. We’re very confident of our nutrient management plan. I’m really looking to having the other side of that story heard,” he said.


This project, part of Water Watch Wisconsin, was supported by The Joyce Foundation. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

This story is part of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s ongoing coverage of water quality and quantity issues in Wisconsin.

DNR vacancies hinder CAFO enforcement

Water-quality advocates say the state Department of Natural Resources’ regulation of large farms, known as concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs, is too lax.

DNR acknowledges low staffing levels have strained enforcement efforts, and described the program:

Staffing: To cover 258 CAFOs, DNR has 11 inspector positions, eight of which are filled, according to agency water resources specialist Andrew Craig. That works out to an average of 32 facilities per inspector. “That is a lot,” said runoff section chief Mary Anne Lowndes. “Everybody recognizes these are high-priority positions, but it always takes time and then you have to train them.” She added: “It’s been hard to maintain the program with the number of vacancies.”

Inspections: The minimum is once every five years for each permit approval. In reality, said CAFO official Casey Jones, she gets out to her northeastern Wisconsin sites “at least once a year.” But staff turnover has hindered enforcement efforts in the region, she said. In addition to the required periodic inspections, other inspections occurred in response to complaints. Inspections are announced; DNR staffers, unlike wardens, may not access properties without permission.

Complaints: Complaints drive enforcement of manure spreading, but the agency has begun doing manure hauling audits. Citizen photos and testimony are not considered sufficient evidence. In northeastern Wisconsin, some citizens have begun taking their own water samples and asking the DNR to confirm them; in at least one case the agency’s sample did not get to the lab in time to be valid.

Where manure goes: Farmers buy land or contract with landowners to ensure they have enough land for all the manure. Verbal agreements are acceptable. The agency spot checks the agreements “as time allows,” Jones said and does “limited” review of nutrient management plans.

The agency does not map the parcels described in nutrient management plans with a comprehensive geographic information system, or GIS. In a 2012 special project, a DNR staffer mapped the nutrient management plans in Kewaunee and found some parcels that were double-approved for spreading of manure and other kinds of waste, like industrial or municipal sludge, Jones said. Double approvals are legal, but it is up to farmers to make sure they are not double-spreading.

Recordkeeping: The agency keeps a spreadsheet of enforcement actions, like notices of noncompliance or violation or enforcement conferences. It does not compile its inspection and enforcement efforts overall. Nor does it log complaints in one place. Jones said she had recently been assigned to compile such a report. “We do capture it in a case file, and we’re also trying to capture it on a statewide basis,” Lowndes said.

--Kate Golden