A Kewaunee County factory farm is suing the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources over recent changes to its wastewater permit that requires the operation to limit its herd size and begin monitoring groundwater in an area known for widespread nitrate contamination.
Kinnard Farms filed a petition in Kewaunee County Circuit Court asking that the DNR’s permit terms be altered and contending the business will be harmed if it is not allowed to grow its herd size and by the requirement to pay for a groundwater monitoring system.
Kinnard Farms is one of Wisconsin’s largest dairy farms. Kewaunee County, in northeastern Wisconsin, is home to 16 industrial farms and has been struggling with agricultural pollution for years after testing showed levels of contaminants in residents’ private drinking water wells. The farms are known as CAFOs, concentrated animal feeding operations.
The permit, issued by the DNR at the end of March, said Kinnard Farms could not exceed 11,369 animal units, equating to about 8,000 cows, which is the number the farm houses currently.
“An unreasonably low animal unit maximum of 11,369 animal units will prohibit Kinnard from expanding or even temporarily maintaining its herd size beyond its current level, with a loss of competitive flexibility,” the petition says. “If Kinnard is restricted from increasing its herd size, Kinnard may lose revenue associated with the sale of milk from additional dairy cows.”
The farm also contended fluctuations in herd size are a normal occurrence and without a higher animal unit maximum, the farm will “incur higher costs.”
The permit also requires the farm to monitor at least two sites where it applies manure to the land as fertilizer, with at least three wells per site. The sites selected must have a shallow depth to the bedrock, where the groundwater resides.
The farm said that the monitoring system required in the permit will cost tens of thousands of dollars initially, plus the fees indefinitely paid to experts to sample, analyze and interpret data from the wells.
The petition was filed on behalf of owner Lee Kinnard by Taylor Fritsch and Jordan Hemaiden, Madison-based attorneys with the law firm Michael Best & Friedrich.
“Each round of sampling typically costs thousands of dollars for the sampling, laboratory analysis and expert data analysis and reporting,” the petition says. “As the system ages, wells will need to be maintained or replaced due to wear and tear.”
In a statement Tuesday, the Kinnard family said it remains committed to regenerative agriculture practices and sustainability.
“On-farm practices such as planting cover crops, limited soil tillage (known as no-till), sand and water recycling and more demonstrate our dedication to protecting groundwater in our community,” the family said. “We continue to invest in cutting-edge innovation to protect our environment.”
Residents in the area disagree.
“Why they think they can continue to drag out a Supreme Court decision and a scientifically founded permit terms is incomprehensible,” said Kewaunee County resident Jodi Parins. “This further proves they have no real interest in regenerative farming, just regenerative profiteering.”
Permit requirements seen as win for locals
The new permit was seen as a huge win for residents, who said they felt like it was the first time the DNR had listened to their concerns about their water in public hearings and submitted testimony throughout the review process.
Under the newly issued permit, Kinnard Farms was required to submit a plan for monitoring the groundwater by May 25. After the plan is approved, the farm would be responsible for installing the wells and monitoring the water for contaminants such as nitrogen, ammonia, nitrates , potassium and E. coli.
The wells will also have to be equipped with technology that will monitor the changes in the groundwater levels from day to day and season to season.
The groundwater monitoring was meant to help the farm and the DNR learn more about how contamination is getting into the groundwater in Kewaukee County.
The pollution issues stem from the land application of manure during the spring, summer and fall, which then soaks into the ground and is able to leach into groundwater. Because the topsoil is a relatively short distance from the groundwater in the area, due to its unique hydrogeology, there have been more issues for those drinking water not from a treated municipal system.
Residents have sometimes experienced brown, foul-smelling water coming out of their taps and testing has shown elevated levels of ammonia and phosphorus in drinking water, both indicators of manure.
More: ‘Stand in their shoes’: Wisconsinites ask DNR to consider impact to Kewaunee Co. residents if a factory farm is able to expand
According to DNR documents, established monitoring wells have already shown high levels of nitrate and E. coli and private wells in the area of the farm have tested positive for other forms of bacteria. The document links Kinnard’s operations to the test results, especially the overapplication of manure on fields in the area.
The newly issued permit, which expires in January 2023, was influenced by a July 2021 state Supreme Court ruling that strengthened the DNR’s hand in permitting decisions.
In the ruling, a majority concluded the DNR has the authority to put conditions on the wastewater permits for the dairy farm.
More: Email reveals DNR has abandoned groundwater rulemaking for nitrates
The decision also found that the DNR could limit the number of animal units at the dairy farm and required groundwater monitoring because of the agency’s responsibility to limit the release of manure into waterways.
But while hopes exist about the future of the permit measures, others remain confident in the Supreme Court’s ruling and the DNR’s terms.
“Kewaunee County residents have been suffering from groundwater contamination, caused by massive amounts of cow manure, for many years. Given Kinnard Farms’ track record, we are not surprised they would challenge basic measures that are necessary to protect their neighbors’ drinking water, said Peg Sheaffer, the director of communication and development for Midwest Environmental Advocates. “We are confident that these reasonable permit conditions will be upheld.”
Laura Schulte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura.