By Ron Seely
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
GREEN BAY — A four-day hearing on the expansion of a Kewaunee County mega-dairy illustrated deep divisions.
There were neighbors with fears of polluted wells and illnesses as well as fertilizer and feed dealers who showed up to express their support of big farms.
At issue is the approval by the state Department of Natural Resources of a plan by Kinnard Farms Inc. in the town of Lincoln in northeastern Wisconsin to expand its operation by 55 percent, to about 6,200 cattle. Such large dairies are called “concentrated animal feeding operations” and need industrial-like pollution discharge permits from the state.
The expanded farm would become the fifth-largest dairy in Wisconsin and would produce annually more than 70 million gallons of manure, which would be spread on surrounding fields.
Five residents who live near the Kinnard farm are challenging the permit and are represented by lawyers from the Madison-based environmental law firm, Midwest Environmental Advocates. The petitioners charge the DNR permitted the expansion without assurances that the farm’s discharges would meet water standards and without allowing sufficient public comment.
The residents also allege the permit was issued by the agency before the Kinnards had submitted completed plans for the project and that the agency was remiss in not requiring water monitoring as part of the permit.
During the hearing, which concluded Friday, DNR lawyers and officials defended the agency’s actions. They argued, for example, that it is not unusual for such permits to be issued prior to having completed plans because there are provisions for altering the permit after receipt of plans.
Agency engineers said the farm’s expansion plans include some of the most protective environmental safeguards in the state.
While the bulk of the hearing, which was held in Green Bay’s City Hall before Administrative Judge Jeffrey Boldt, was taken up by a discussion of technical details of the expansion, an emotional late-night public comment session Wednesday filled the chairs in the hearing room.
Though the large majority of those who provided testimony were against the expansion and the DNR’s approval of the permits, the farm did have supporters. Of the more than 25 people who spoke, four supported the Kinnard farm.
Kewaunee County resident Donald Cochart, who said he has known the Kinnard family for his entire life, praised the family for its progressive farming practices.
“I know of nobody better than the Kinnards,” he said.
Cochart said he is impressed with the modern technologies the farm uses to protect the environment and to produce more milk with fewer cows. He said agriculture has to continue to make such advances.
Sarah Williams, the MEA lawyer representing the residents challenging the permit, said she expects it will take up to five months to resolve the dispute. She and others have indicated that the outcome could have statewide implications for how the DNR permits CAFOs and on whether the agency will be required to impose more conditions on the operation of the large farms.
A spokesperson for Kinnard Farms declined comment on the hearing.
Most who testified Wednesday during the public comment period came with dark assessments of the Kinnard farming practices, especially the spreading of millions of gallons of manure in an area that is susceptible to pollution because of porous bedrock called karst.
That bedrock is characterized by fractures through which manure can seep into drinking water supplies.
The state does not consider the presence of karst in its CAFO regulations.
Several people who live adjacent to the Kinnard farm told of wells contaminated by E. coli, which comes from human and animal waste. Among them was Dave Mindak, who said his well, which tested positive for bacteria in 2011, is about 40 feet from a field in which the Kinnards spread manure.
Earlier during the hearing, a DNR official testified that such contamination is not necessarily from the industrial-sized farms and could also come from “geese, small farms and septic systems.”
Critics questioned why the DNR has refused to require the Kinnards to monitor water quality as part of the permit. And several cited instances in which they said the DNR failed to exert adequate oversight of the giant farms and their manure-spreading practices.
Ken Johnson, the DNR’s water division leader, said the complaints from those who testified at the hearing are similar to many concerns the agency hears about its permitting and oversight of the farms. He said widespread contamination of wells in Kewaunee County has long been a problem because of the fractured bedrock that underlies the region.
“It’s very difficult to ascertain where the pollution is coming from,” Johnson said. “That doesn’t mean you can assert that there is no CAFO pollution.”
As for the agency’s oversight, he said the DNR’s monitoring of the CAFOs and their pollution permits is little different from its regulation of municipalities and industry.
“I know people would like us to have an inspector out there every time somebody spreads,” Johnson said. “But we don’t have the staff or the inclination to do that.”