The following article was originally written in the summer of 2007, shortly after Wisconsin’s livestock facility siting review panel denied Magnolia township’s health and safety conditions in permitting the Larson Acres confined animal feeding operation.
Wisconsin’s worst day, and what to do about it
By Tony Ends
Aug. 17 was a tragic day for health and safety in Wisconsin. It was a tragic day for fundamental rights of people in Wisconsin to protect themselves and their water.
Nitrate contamination at Larson Acres, Inc.’s south central Wisconsin cattle feeding operation has been called “the highest instance of nitrate water pollution” in the state.
Both a stream ecologist and a soil and water scientist – sitting and emeritus professors in the University of Wisconsin system – stated this in public hearings this year. No one refuted scientific evidence presented to Magnolia Township at those hearings in western Rock County.
Yet on Aug. 17, Wisconsin’s new livestock facility siting review panel officially slapped down the township’s health and safety conditions in permitting this facility.
Wisconsin thus gets its first taste of a new law Larson Acres and a group of industrial livestock operators and food manufacturers carefully put in place over 4 years. Since millions of people in this state – all of 750,000 people in Upper Rock River Basin (Beloit, to Madison, to Fond du Lac), for instance – drink from ground water, this decision’s implications are potentially catastrophic.
Consider the circumstances behind this decision:
- A principal of Larson Acres, Inc., served on the state task force that held hearings in late 2003 on the then proposed large-scale livestock facility siting law after Magnolia Township turned down his own conditional use permit application and after courts upheld local citizens’ appeals. The proposed state law stripped towns and counties of the right to refuse permits for expanding facilities.
- Principals of Larson Acres and others in the industry helped ram the measure into passage within just 6 weeks of its only public hearing before the state Assembly and Senate in early 2004.
- Principals of Larson Acres, Inc. contributed campaign money, along with others in their industry, to Assembly Representative Ward and other legislative sponsors and to Gov. Jim Doyle who hastily signed AB868 into law (http://www.wisdc.org/wdc.php).
- A principal of Larson Acres, Inc., was then appointed to the technical advisory panel in 2005 that crafted details of how the new State Statute 93.90 works.
- And now, as of Aug. 17, Larson Acres has obtained the state’s first reversal of local town attempts to condition large-scale livestock facility operation and expansion under the new law.
This new state law thus completely undermines democratic processes and local authority. The law’s new review panel made its first major decision after only one day of public review in July. The outcome impacts clean water and public health for virtually every Wisconsin citizen.
Wisconsin’s farm publications covered Larson Acres’ recent triumph. Yet no daily newspaper, radio station or network witnessed the review panel’s deliberations. Few people outside Magnolia Township understand just how indiscriminately the new law ignores local circumstances and bars or impedes appropriate local action.
At Larson Acres’ existing huge dairy in Magnolia, there has been a 30,000-gallon liquid manure spill. Larson Acres also previously got an emergency DNR order to spread liquid manure on frozen ground because its multi-million gallon dairy slurry was about to overflow.
Residents around the contested new heifer operation in the same township did not want these problems repeated in Larson Acres’ second facility. Town officials were trying to safeguard the public with expert help.
In 2006, Magnolia received a $76,000 settlement from Larson Acres for illegally operating its cattle barn for 2 years. With these funds, the town hired scientists and technicians. Advising the town were soil and water scientist Dr. Byron Shaw, aquatic ecologist and bio-geochemist Professor Emily Stanley, hydrologist and aquatic biologist David Marshall and hydro-geologist Peter Taglia.
They studied Larson Acres’ crop records and soil samples. They tested wells, surface water and drain tiles. They carefully evaluated agronomy, health, safety, local geology and soils at the operation’s quarter-mile long dry cow feeding barn and massive slurry, built to accumulate 6 million gallons of manure every 300 days.
Impact of a facility this size is enormous. One trade publication on waste streams estimated only 100 dairy cows produce as much manure as sewage of 35,000 people. In this rural neighborhood, Larson Acres’ heifer barn has already been producing 10 times that amount on one farm for nearly 3 years.
Water upstream of Larson Acres tested safe for nitrate in Norwegian Creek, a state Exceptional Water Resource in Green County. Yet this creek tested more than 200 ppm as it crosses Larson Acres’ property – 20 times the level EPA flags as unsafe. At least 3 wells had toxic nitrate levels from Larson Acres’ livestock facility operation.
Nitrate pollution’s health impacts include Blue Baby syndrome, developmental and birth defects. It is affiliated with forms of cancer, such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and bladder cancers. Risks to other organisms, including livestock, are slowed growth, slowed body functions that can result in stillbirth and even death.
Prof. Emily Stanley told Magnolia that continued nitrate loading in Norwegian Creek risks health for all forms of life. She testified that she’d never seen in her entire career such high nitrate concentrations in a stream or tile.
Yet the state’s new livestock facility siting review board held no open discussion of any details in the town’s 2,500 pages of evidence. In a single, day-long public review of Larson Acres’ appeal in July, the words “public health” were uttered only once. Only passing references admitted “problems” at Larson Acres.
Instead, panel members struck town attempts to:
- Stop fall manure applications on Larson Acres’ tile drained and upland fields until nitrate pollution stops.
- Set up regular water monitoring and annual soil testing on the property,
- Replace Larson Acres’ plan to plant field corn (the most prone crop to leak nitrate into water) continuously in its manure application area, with wider rotation of hay (the least likely cropping system to leach nitrate).
Instead, the new review board said towns can undertake (at their own expense) enforcement through courts. Panel members admitted the new livestock facility law severely restricts how towns, counties, even cities, can condition new and expanding large-scale livestock facility permits. Larson Acres, Inc. thus got a permit with no significant, local conditions to operate with 1,500 animal units, despite severe nitrate water pollution evidence.
Already emboldened by the new state law, huge hog, dairy and cattle-feeding facilities with massive manure-holding structures are cropping up around Wisconsin. Huge dairies still number under 200 in a state with more than 14,000 dairy farms total and an average herd size of only about 100 cows. Yet the state agriculture department and Larson Acres’ same legal representation are aggressively enforcing the new law and administrative guidelines, statewide.
Negative implications for drinking water, aquatic life, human and animal health are clear. Wisconsin Statute 93.90 poses a uniform threat to life with uniform standards that overrule local attempts to condition large-scale livestock facilities. This leaves little recourse for common people across Wisconsin. Citizens must:
- Mount a petition drive for a referendum to strike Wisconsin Statute 93.90 and administrative authority being used to force this law on our towns and counties.
- Seek what scores of U.S. health organizations seek – to ban new large-scale livestock facility construction.
- Petition Wisconsin food manufacturers to disclose their suppliers, and then boycott all finished dairy and food products from large-scale industrial livestock production anywhere.
- Lay claim to what is rightfully theirs – clean ground and surface water. They must reclaim rights to condition any industrial-scale facility, including livestock, that can pollute water and threaten health.
There are many things we can live without. Clean water is not one of them. This livestock facility siting law must be abolished before all water and health are imperiled.