Commentary

A big win for clean water in Wisconsin

July 12, 2021 6:45 am
Glass of water being filled from a tap

Photo courtesy the Centers for Disease Control

Last week, the people of Wisconsin achieved an important victory in the fight for clean water and a healthy environment. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that current law gives the state authority to enforce water quality standards through the use of permit conditions for large agricultural operations known as concentrated animal feeding operations or “CAFOs.” 

In siding with clean water advocates, the Supreme Court ruled against Republicans in the Legislature and against powerful special interest groups including Wisconsin Manufactures and Commerce. WMC and its allies in the Legislature argued that Act 21—a 2011 law about agency rulemaking—eliminated the Department of Natural Resources’ power to impose certain permit conditions, even when those conditions are shown to be necessary to uphold the Clean Water Act and protect groundwater. In the end, the Supreme Court dismissed WMC’s flawed arguments.

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Behind this victory for clean water are five Kewaunee County residents—Lynda, Amy, Roger, Sandra, and Chad—all represented by Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA)—and co-litigant Clean Wisconsin. In 2012, Kewaunee County residents demanded that the state do more to protect their drinking water. They and many of their neighbors suffered from contaminated water caused by the rapid expansion of CAFOs in one of the most geologically sensitive regions in the state. In 2012, Kewaunee County records showed that 50% of private wells nearby were unsafe to drink from, either because they tested positive for coliform bacteria or because they exceeded standards for nitrates. 

On behalf of our Kewaunee County clients, MEA filed a legal challenge to the permit for Kinnard Farms, a nearby CAFO that was seeking to expand. Local residents asked for modest permit conditions to protect the safety of their drinking water and the health of their families. In 2014, an administrative law judge agreed with them, finding that Kewaunee County’s drinking water crisis had been caused by “massive regulatory failure.”

After Kewaunee County residents proved in 2014 that stronger permit conditions were necessary, the state should have implemented those protections. However, Kinnard Farms — joined by some of the state’s most powerful lobbying groups — fought those safeguards all the way to the state’s highest court. The sweeping arguments put forward by WMC and others threatened to do lasting damage in Kewaunee County and jeopardized the state’s ability to enforce basic environmental and public health protections throughout Wisconsin. 

While we celebrate the Supreme Court’s ruling, we also know the fight for clean water is far from over. In too many communities throughout Wisconsin — communities like Marinette, Milwaukee, Nelsonville and Crawford County — drinking water remains vulnerable to a host of threats, including nitrates, lead and PFAS. 

It is unfortunate but not surprising that special interest groups continue to stand in the way of finding solutions to these serious public health issues. In a lawsuit filed recently, WMC is attempting to use similarly flawed legal arguments to attack the state’s power to order cleanup of PFAS and other toxic contaminants.

Clearly, there is still a lot of work to be done. But, Lynda, Amy, Roger, Sandra, Chad and their friends and neighbors in Kewaunee County have shown what can be accomplished with determination and perseverance. They could have given up long ago, but they didn’t. Instead, they stood firm in defense of their community, and in doing so, they successfully defended the environmental laws that protect us all.

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Tony Wilkin Gibart
Tony Wilkin Gibart

Tony Wilkin Gibart is the executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, a nonprofit environmental law firm that works to defend public rights, protect natural resources, and ensure transparency and accountability in government. Learn more about MEA at www.midwestadvocates.org.

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