GREEN BAY — A four-day hearing on challenges to the expansion of a Kewaunee County mega-dairy illustrated deep divisions, ranging from neighbors who shared fears of polluted wells and illness to 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, or CAFOs, and need industrial-like pollution discharge permits from the state to operate.
The expanded farm would become the fifth-largest dairy in Wisconsin and would produce more than 70 million gallons of manure a year, which would be spread on surrounding fields.
The permit is being challenged by five residents who live near the Kinnard farm. They are being 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 that 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 feature 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 somewhat tedious 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 its supporters. Of the more than 25 people who spoke, four supported the Kinnard farm.
Kewaunee County resident Donald Cochart, who said he’s known the Kinnard family for his whole life, praised the family for its progressive farming practices.
“I know of nobody better than the Kinnards,” Cochart said.
Cochart said he is especially 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.
“To not proceed is to regress and to starve the world,” Cochart said.
The farm also received the support of Andy Barta, an Algoma feed dealer who does business with the Kinnards. He also praised the Kinnard’s modern farming practices, especially their manure management efforts.
“Farmers are doing a lot better job of applying nutrients today,” Barta said.
Sarah Williams, the MEA lawyer who represented residents challenging the permit, said after the hearing that it is likely to take as many as five months for the issue to be resolved.
She and others have indicated that the outcome of the challenge 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.
This type of 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 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 only about 40 feet from a field where the Kinnards spread manure.
Amy Cochart, another Kinnard neighbor, who a relative said is not related to Donald Cochart, was wary of the expansion plan.
She said her family’s well is contaminated by nitrates, which comes from farm fertilizer and manure and can be dangerous to infants. She said she spends $30 to $50 a month on bottled water. She also said she and her children have suffered with asthma, which worsens during the months when the heavy volumes of manure are being spread on neighboring fields.
“I just want to make sure Kinnard Farms is not putting their bottom line above the health and safety of neighbors,” Cochart said.
Also testifying was Mick Sagrillo, a 36-year-resident of the town of Lincoln who lives three miles from the Kinnard farm and who is former chairman of the town’s plan commission. He cited the extensive pollution of wells in the town of Lincoln, where 50 percent of private wells are contaminated, and in Kewaunee County, where 30 percent of wells test positive for toxins such as E. coli.
Earlier during the hearing, a DNR official testified that such contamination is not necessarily from the industrial-sized farms and could also be coming from “geese, small farms and septic systems.”
Sagrillo said he found that claim particularly offensive, especially in a county with 16 permitted CAFOs and with 75 percent of its farmland under plans that allow the spreading of such large volumes of manure.
Others questioned why the DNR has refused to require the Kinnards to monitor water quality as part of their permit. And several cited instances in which they said the DNR has failed to exert adequate oversight of the giant farms and their manure-spreading practices.
Officials with the DNR have indicated that they rely heavily on self-reporting of violations by CAFOs as well as complaints from neighbors.
Ken Johnson, who heads the DNR’s water division, 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 large and controversial farms.
Johnson said widespread contamination of wells in Kewaunee County has long been a problem because of the fractured bedrock that underlies the region. He also supported the contention made by agency officials during the hearing that the contamination showing up in the wells could be coming from other sources because of the susceptibility of the water supply.
“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. He said the agency also relies heavily in those areas upon self-reporting and citizen complaints.
“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. It would be very expensive to do that.”