Groups ask EPA to investigate pollution caused by cattle farms - MJS 10/22/14

Six environmental groups on Wednesday asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to exercise emergency powers under the Safe Drinking Water Act to investigate groundwater contamination in cattle-intensive Kewaunee County in northeastern Wisconsin. In a petition to the federal agency, the groups say the Department of Natural Resources has failed to protect drinking water for county residents on two fronts: Through its powers to regulate groundwater and the agency's oversight of large-scale cattle operations.

By Lee Bergquist of the Journal Sentinel




The environmental groups estimate that the tens of thousands of cattle in the county produce the manure equivalent of more than 900,000 humans — or more than the City of Milwaukee.
As of June, nearly 31% of 149 wells tested this year in the county contained bacteria or nitrates — or both — that exceeded state and federal public health standards. In Lincoln Township, half the 38 wells that were tested exceeded the standard, according to the petition.
The well testing was conducted by the county conservation department and was analyzed by the Center for Watershed Science and Education at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
"Everyone deserves safe, clean and reliable drinking water, but Kewaunee County residents gamble with their health simply by turning on the faucets in their homes," Elizabeth Wheeler, staff attorney with Clean Wisconsin, said in a statement. "We're seeking federal action to help create a long-term solution to what's unfortunately been a long-term problem for thousands of people in the area."
The petition has political overtones because it comes less than two weeks before the Nov. 4 election between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Democrat Mary Burke, and environmental groups have complained about lax regulation under Walker.
The DNR was not immediately available for comment.
Kewaunee County has emerged as ground zero in a debate over sharp growth in dairying in pockets of Wisconsin and whether farmers can adequately protect the land and water from the growing tide of manure.
Nutrient-rich manure has long served as a key source of fertilizer for farmland. But in documents filed with the EPA, the environmental groups contend the volume of animal waste generated by farms in Kewaunee County exceed the land's carrying capacity.
Manure and fertilizer have also been the source of contamination in the state's surface waters, notably algae blooms and the formation of a oxygen-deprived dead zones in Green Bay, according to recent series of stories on the Great Lakes by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Citing DNR figures in Kewaunee County, the groups said manure from dairy cows, calves, heifers and beef cattle produce 12.4 million pounds of nitrogen annually. But the groups said the 130,228 acres of harvestable acres was able to accommodate about 11.3 million pounds of nitrogen — or a surplus of some 1.2 million pounds.
There are about 200 dairy farms in the county, including 15 large-scale farms known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. Farms qualifying as CAFOs have at least 700 milking and dry cows and come under DNR oversight, including a requirement that operators file detailed plans to spread manure.
The number of cattle has grown in the county from 59,800 to 80,000 since 1983, the groups said. Kewaunee County is one of four counties in the state that have experienced an increase in dairy cows between 1983 and 2012.
The growth of the dairying industry is taking place on land that has trouble sustaining so much manure, the groups said. The landscape of Kewaunee County consists of soil overlaying fractured bedrock, which makes it more difficult to prevent manure and water from soaking into the soil and slipping through cracks in the bedrock to reach groundwater.
The groups asking help from the EPA are: Clean WisconsinEnvironmental Integrity ProjectMidwest Environmental Advocates, Midwest Environmental Defense Center
Article sent to WNPJ by:
John E. Peck
Executive Director
Family Farm Defenders,
P.O. Box 1772, Madison, WI 53701
tel./fax. 608-260-0900