Kinnard Farms, one of Wisconsin’s largest dairy producers, has filed a lawsuit to challenge requirements that the operation test water quality near fields where manure has been spread. The lawsuit, filed on Earth Day against the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), comes weeks after the DNR announced that Kinnard Farms would be required to monitor groundwater.
The move represents the latest chapter in the ongoing conflict over how to address groundwater contamination in the state. Nitrate contamination from the waste of farm animals is Wisconsin’s most common groundwater contaminant. A report in February by the Environmental Working Group and Midwest Environmental Advocates found that in four Wisconsin counties, manure was applied more than 50% above the rate recommended by University of Wisconsin researchers to minimize pollution. Kinnard Farms, and Kewaunee County where it’s located, was cited in the report.
The Kinnard Farms lawsuit came after the DNR revised the dairy operations’ Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit to require the water quality tests. The department added the requirement to the permit after a Clean Wisconsin lawsuit and a Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling that the DNR has the authority to require monitoring of nearby wells to ensure that pollution standards are being followed.
“Kinnard is opposing the very basic step of checking to see if manure runoff is impacting the water supply,” said Clean Wisconsin staff attorney Evan Feinauer. “There is no doubt Kewaunee families are facing serious water contamination issues and have been for years.”
Under federal and state standards, nitrate levels shouldn’t exceed 10 parts per million in drinking water. No infants or pregnant women should consume water that exceeds that level, according to the standards. Infants suffer acute risks from nitrate contamination, including so-called “blue baby syndrome,” and other ailments. Some research suggests that nitrate-contaminated water may be linked to higher risks of thyroid disorders, diabetes, and certain cancers. An analysis done by the Environmental Working Group and Clean Wisconsin found that direct medical costs in Wisconsin linked to nitrate-contaminated drinking water ranged from $23 million to $80 million per year.
“This is about using science to understand what’s happening to our water resources and guide us to effective solutions that protect public health,” said Feinauer. “Groundwater monitoring can help us identify potential problems that lead to contamination and also validate whether the important conversation efforts that are already underway are making an impact.”
Feinauer highlighted that the requirements were a hard-fought victory won in the Supreme Court. “After years of litigation and a Supreme Court ruling affirming DNR’s responsibility to use these tools to ensure clean drinking water, it’s concerning to see that the notion of monitoring water quality to protect public health is yet again being challenged,” he said.
New standards for manure spreading were also issued by the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection in August 2021. Two months earlier, in June, a manure spill at a Lincoln County dairy farm leaked into a creek, resulting in a fish kill.
Kinnard Farms currently houses more than 8,000 animals and has argued against setting a cap on that number. Feinauer underscored the farm’s ambitions to continue to expand.
“At some point, there is just no more land on which such massive amounts of manure can be safely stored or spread,” Feinauer noted. “The Supreme Court understood this when it agreed that DNR has the authority to place limits on the size of these farms to protect water quality.”
The ongoing legal battle over the DNR’s authority could also affect other farming operations. Currently, the DNR is proposing water monitoring requirements in draft permits for Gordonale Farms in Portage County, where the village of Nelsonville has been affected by water quality issues. In 2018, the Department of Health Services tested 60 private wells in Nelsonville, 28 of which exceeded groundwater nitrate standards.
Feinauer’s words echoed the findings of the report by the Environmental Working Group and Midwest Environmental Advocates. “In several areas, there’s not enough agricultural land to safely and economically dispose of the manure that animal feeding operations generate,” the report states. It adds that “an estimated two-thirds of manure nutrients in the counties are produced by unpermitted operations, for which the Wisconsin DNR has little to no information regarding location, size, how much manure they produce, or where it is spread.”
Private wells and groundwater stores aren’t the only issue. More than 1,500 miles of streams, rivers, and 33 lakes in Wisconsin across nine counties are considered “impaired” by the DNR, largely due to agriculture-related pollution and runoff, of which manure is a key source. Large farming operations housing thousands of animals are increasingly responsible, according to environmental advocates. About 3% of Wisconsin’s farms produce around 40% of the state’s milk.
Kinnard Farms defended itself in a statement to Wisconsin Examiner that did not address the company’s lawsuit, nor the reason for its filing.
“The Kinnard Farms family remains committed to regenerative agriculture 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. We continue to invest in cutting-edge innovation to protect our environment.”
Feinauer argues that legal action shouldn’t be necessary to ensure that water quality will be protected in rural communities. “We know everyone wants the same end result, safe drinking water and successful farms,” he said. “Clean Wisconsin will continue to fight for clean drinking water for all residents of Wisconsin, and for sensible protections against groundwater contamination.”
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