Cows outside a barn (William Garrett | PxHere, CC BY 2.0 )
A group of Kewaunee County residents represented by Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA) has intervened in a legal dispute between Kinnard Farms and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Kinnard, a giant dairy farm, has pushed back against wastewater permit requirements imposed by the DNR in March 2022. The move comes just days after Clean Wisconsin also filed a brief in support of the DNR in a lawsuit brought by Kinnard Farms.
The permit requirements are aimed at curbing cow manure polluting water supplies. Currently, Kinnard Farms houses over 8,000 animals, and has argued in the lawsuit that it shouldn’t be required to test water quality near fields where manure is spread.
The ongoing legal battle stems from a 2012 lawsuit involving the DNR and Clean Wisconsin, which made its way to the Supreme Court. A group of neighbors challenged Kinnard Farms’ pollution permit, arguing that it wasn’t enough to protect the water and the community’s health. Two years later, in 2014, an administrative law judge agreed that Kewaunee County’s drinking water crisis was caused by “massive regulatory failure.” Kinnard filed its own challenges soon after, leading the legal battle to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Clean Wisconsin argued that the DNR has the authority to require water testing, and to limit the number of animals housed by large operations like Kinnard. In July 2021, the Supreme Court affirmed the DNR’s authority to protect water quality by imposing requirements in permits. Kinnard Farms, however, has not given up.
Evan Feinauer, staff attorney for Clean Wisconsin, noted that the legal action is an important step following the Supreme Court case. “The DNR decision to include these conditions in Kinnard’s permit was legally sound and based on science,” said Feinauer in a press release. “Clean Wisconsin is going to continue insisting on standards and conditions like these that help protect the groundwater so many people rely on for drinking water in Kewaunee County. Families have been dealing with unsafe drinking water in this area for far too long.”
Wisconsin’s problems with nitrate pollution, stemming from agricultural waste, are well documented. Nitrate is the state’s most common groundwater contaminant. It’s been linked to a variety of chronic health ailments, and recent studies have shown the state literally doesn’t have enough land to safely spread its accumulated manure. An analysis done by the Environmental Working Group and Clean Wisconsin found that direct medical costs for nitrate contamination in drinking water range from $23-80 million per year in Wisconsin.
On Sept. 9, Clean Wisconsin appeared at the first scheduling conference called by the administrative judge overseeing Kinnard’s case. The group has been allowed to defend the permit conditions in court “as both lawful and necessary to protect water quality in Kewaunee County,” according to a press release.
MEA staff attorney Adam Voskuil said in a press release that considering the severe groundwater contamination in the area, “the terms and conditions of the permit are both reasonable and necessary.” Kewaunee County resident and MEA client Sue Owen stressed that “there’s no denying the sensitivity of the region to drinking water contamination and the extent of private well contamination in Kewaunee County. Yet Kinnard Farms has spent more than a decade and an unimaginable amount of money fighting basic measures that would improve the community’s drinking water.”
Jodi Parins, another county resident and client of MEA, felt similarly. “The farm’s owners say they want to be good neighbors, but they continue to use the courts to delay their neighbor’s access to clean water. When will they stop bickering over what — for an operation of their size — is small potatoes and start abiding by the court rulings and reasonable water protection standards?”
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