Dairy

A group of dairy producers in Kewaunee County says it plans to supply safe drinking water to residents with wells tainted by animal waste. 

Kate Golden / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

A group of dairy producers in Kewaunee County announced Wednesday that it will pay more than half the cost of drinking water purification systems for residents whose wells have been polluted by animal waste.

The farmers and feedlot owners who belong to the private nonprofit Peninsula Pride Farms also said they would pay for bottled water for up to three months for the owner of any well in the county testing positive for E. coli bacteria.

If an inspection by a private consultant hired by Peninsula Pride finds that the well’s protective casing isn’t cracked, and the state Department of Natural Resources determines manure is probably the contamination source, the farmer group will help pay for a water treatment system.

The program is a step toward settling a long-simmering dispute over responsibility for bacterial pollution that can cause serious illness or death.

Advocates who’ve pushed for tougher regulation of the agricultural industry’s manure handling practices said the drinking water program was overdue.

Well tests conducted for about 10 years have found health hazards, including E. coli, in about 30 percent of wells tested in the county. Agricultural interests have questioned whether spreading of millions of gallons of manure annually on farm fields was the cause. But residents said a systematic county inspection and repair program has all but eliminated the possibility that faulty septic tanks were the culprit.

If the problem is a septic system or a defective well, Peninsula Pride Farms won’t pay for repairs or help cover the costs of a water treatment system.

However, if someone repairs a faulty well and a new test still finds E. coli, then assistance would be offered, said Don Niles, the owner of a 2,850-cow farm near Casco and president of the farm group.

Niles said that if the source of the E. coli isn’t entirely clear, the well owner will still be eligible for a water treatment system.

“What we are doing is owning our share,” Niles said. “We don’t want people getting sick here on our watch.”

Forty farmers formed Peninsula Pride in January to seek voluntary ways to improve environmental practices. They’ve hired a consultant to review manure handling and staged educational events. The state provided a $20,000 start-up grant, members pay dues and several businesses have contributed money for the safe drinking water effort, Niles said.

Niles estimated that as many as 40 wells — or 1 percent of the 4,000 in the county — would end up with the treatment systems, but he said there’s no way of knowing, and he’s prepared to raise more money if needed. He said he hopes that the program will mark a turning point.

“We are all scarred by the arguments and the acrimony, so it may take a while to see there’s now a way to do things other than shouting at each other,” Niles said.

DNR, county, farmer group agreement

The program will operate on terms spelled out in a memorandum of understanding between the county, the DNR and the farmer group.

DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp said in a letter dated Friday to the farm group that an alternative solution to a water treatment system in some cases could be improved “best management practices.” The state details best management practices for storage and spreading of manure, but in most cases they are mandatory only for large Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, known as CAFOs.

“We fully support the concept that this offer does not involve any sort of admission of culpability on the part of Peninsula Pride farmers; but that it is offered to help prevent health impacts,” Stepp said in the letter, which was released by the state Dairy Business Association.

Peninsula Pride Farms said under its “Water Well” program it would cover about $1,500 of the estimated $2,250 initial cost for purchase and installation of a system that uses ultraviolet light to kill bacteria.

Well owners must obtain water tests from certified laboratories in order to qualify, and they would be required to install water softeners, which are necessary for the treatment systems to function, if they don’t already have them. The dairy group said it would pay the the estimated first-year maintenance cost of $200, but the well owner would cover the cost after that.

The Madison-based public interest law firm Midwest Environmental Advocates said the program falls short.

“We’ve asked DNR for years to use existing authority and funding in its spills program to provide clean drinking water on an emergency basis, but DNR refuses to do so,” said Sarah Geers, an MEA attorney. “Since the ‘Water Well’ program may not fully cover the cost of emergency drinking water, treatment or well replacement, it is time for DNR to step up.”

The Peninsula Pride announcement comes about two years after residents petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to force the state into actions that would remedy the problem in Kewaunee County, where there is a high concentration of CAFOs and porous bedrock that leaves groundwater vulnerable.

The EPA in March urged state regulators to make it a priority to deliver clean water to those without it. A DNR-funded study aimed at determining the source of the contamination is ongoing.

The EPA’s regional administrator said on Aug. 17 that an announcement about provision of drinking water was coming soon.

Kewaunee County

at center of conflict

Kewaunee County has become one of several centers of heated conflict between farming interests and residents upset about the poor quality of groundwater, lakes and streams.

Residents have filed a series of lawsuits aimed at compelling the DNR to enforce laws and set stricter standards.

Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature have curtailed DNR budgets and its authority to set and enforce standards for polluters.

Residents and conservation groups in 2014 petitioned the EPA to use emergency powers to protect public health in Kewaunee County. Federal officials worked with the DNR to form “workgroups” that studied potential solutions and issued a report in June.

Midwest Environmental Advocates has asked the DNR several times since October to review its legal analysis indicating the department could supply drinking water when wells are poisoned by animal waste, according to email exchanges the group released.

And in a March 28 letter, acting regional EPA administrator Robert Kaplan told Stepp that while the state agency was making a comprehensive plan to prevent further contamination, it was important to make sure residents had safe water.

In November, tests funded by the DNR of 320 randomly selected wells found 110 exceeded standards for total coliform or nitrate, both of which can come from manure or other sources, such as faulty septic systems.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.