A plan to construct a 12.2 million gallon manure pit in the town of Little River is moving ahead over the objections of neighbors and clean water advocates, who expressed fears it would leak and foul nearby wells and waterways.
More than 50 people at an April 10 hearing at the Little River Town Hall wanted the Oconto County Land Conservation Committee to deny a variance request by B & D Dairy, a Marinette County farm northeast of Pound.
LCC members, though, unanimously approved the variance. One member noted that the county was powerless was stop construction of such a facility even if the variance was denied, but the plan presented appeared to the best considering the terrain.
“This is the best solution if a manure pit is going to be put in here… if we deny the variance, that just means it’s going to change the way this thing is constructed,” said Doug Allen. ‘Manure is going to get hauled here, we cannot stop that … it’s agricultural land.”
“We can deny it – but it’s not going to stop there,” said Allen. “That’s the sad part, I don’t have an answer for you, on how to stop it, because we can’t. No matter where (the owner) lives, we can’t stop it, if meets DNR requirements.”
Alan Shallow suggested that the LCC seemed resigned to accept the plan.
“Maybe if you deny this variance, he goes back to the drawing board and comes in with a more reasonable size pit he can fit in there without the berms and without the variance,” he said. “Are we not willing to try to stop him a little bit? It looks like he’s willing to play chicken with us, maybe we should stand up to him.”
A county ordinance requires a 250-foot setback from the adjoining property line, which happens to be across Hillcrest Lane. The east edge of pit – to be located on the west side of Hillcrest Road just south of County Highway A – would be 153 feet from that line.
The 97-foot variance is needed “to locate (the pit) in the best place possible in that location,” Jennifer Keuning of technical services firm GHD in Green Bay told LCC members.
“A big consideration in this project is considering health and safety and thinking about the best way to do this design and construct it , and put it in an appropriate location, so that we minimize the height of berms and that we can get as much of this structure below grade as possible,” Keuning said. “And if there’s problem and something would breach on that structure, then we don’t have the susceptibility of berms above grade.”
Nicholas Coady of GHD explained that moving the pit to meet the 250-foot setback would result in berms of 12 to 14 feet.
The possible locations are narrowed because of underground gas lines and a creek, which will be the required 300 feet away. As for wells, the one serving the property is about 700 feet away, with wells of neighbors about 1,200 and 1,300 feet away.
“We’re staying as far from the wells as possible,” Coady said.
A swale outside of the berms on the northwest and south sides of the triangular-shaped pond would hold more than 55,000 gallons in case of small berm failure, Coady said. The two emergency containment swales along the road, in case of a tanker accident, would hold another 28,000 gallons.
In remarks to the LCC, several people raised the specter of well water contamination in Kewaunee County, which some suspect has been caused by manure. The issue is being studied by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Kara Bresnahan of Oconto ticked off a listed of health problems caused by manure tainting groundwater and noted that between 1983 and 2012, the number of cattle in Kewaunee County increased by 34 percent.
“If you look at their water levels, (it’s) not safe to drink,” she said. “I do not want this to happen to Oconto County.”
Jeanne Carlin Bickel told LCC members that 30 percent of all the wells in Kewaunee County are contaminated, forcing many people to purchase bottled water for home.
“We need to speak up now and say we do not want to become another Kewaunee County,” she said. “I feel we are looking at it right in our face.”
Ryan Viestenz, who farms to the east, said he’s concerned about the possibility of contamination of his land and adjacent creeks.
“Once it soaks into the ground and gets into groundwater, I don’t care if you have boundaries of 300 feet, 1,300 feet – that can go forever,” he said. “I have cattle (and) I have family drinking this water… my well drilled before I was even invented, and it’s still pure water to this day.”
Town of Little River chairman Tom DesJarlais said the Land Conservation Department itself notified area residents that the Little River was added to EPAs list of “impaired waters” for excessive phosphorus and sediment. He said that alone should be enough to delay to pit’s construction.
“What we have going on here is a Marinette County factory who is basically going to be dumping their waste on the town of Little River with absolutely zero economic gain to Little River or to Oconto County,” he said.
According to an online map, the farm is about 14 miles away from the Hillcrest Road property.
Jim Lucas of Lena said the LCC should “cut this thing off right now,” rather than let it proceed.
“There’s lots of pollutants in the Little River already,” Lucas said. “If we add more, or the potential for more, it’s the wrong way to go.”
Nansi Casper, saying that the state legislature is working to erode environmental protections, agreed.
“I don’t see the point in having more strict rule (than the state on setbacks), if you’re going to violate it when someone come in” she said. “I’d feel a lot safer about this if the guy who owns it actually lived on the property.”
Dean Hoegger, president and executive director of the Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin, urged the LCC to limit expansion of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in Oconto County by enforcing regulations.
“(CWAC members are) very concerned about you making it (easier) for them to expand, rather than be more restrictive,” he said. “Do not set a precedent here. Do not allow this variance to be granted, but hold to the 250 foot setback, and make a lot of folks here happy.”
Land Conservation Department director Ken Dolata said he understood the concerns being raised by the crowd, but a denial of the variance wouldn’t stop manure being trucked to that field.
“If that manure pit does not go in there, manure is still coming to that field and hauled out and getting spread,” he said. “That’s just the way of farming.”
B & D could still install a pit and bypass the county by meeting the 250 foot setback, he said, by meeting the DNR regulations of being at least 300 feet from streams and constructing the pit’s concrete liner to meet federal and state specifications.
“If it’s moved, all of a sudden it’s on top of everything we’re trying to protect,” Allen added. “That’s the danger of turning down this variance today. “We don’t have the power to stop this gentleman from putting in a manure pit here.”
Committee Chairman Dennis Kroll said a denial would likely result in a pit that could have larger problems should a breach occur.
“We’re trying to keep it so we don’t build these big berms,” Kroll told the crowd. “The possibility is still great that he’ll build it.”
“I farm too,” he added. “Farms are getting bigger, the little farms are gone ... that’s the way it is.”
“That can’t be the way it is,” one man in the crowd shot back “You keep on saying that’s the way it is. No, it doesn’t have to be.”
DesJarlais said the town may take another tack, contending the construction of that facility would ruin a quarter mile of Hillcrest Road because of the heavy traffic.
“We will protect that road one way or another,” he said. “If that’s the only recourse the town has, we will protect that road.”
There is a 30-day period in which the decision could be appealed. Dolata said appeals need to cite violations or defects in the plan, and to date, none has been raised in prior application.
Keuning said GHD will prepare engineering and construction plans for the facility, and submit them to Dolata’s office for review. If there’s a deficiency or problem, it’s returned to the company for revision, Dolata said. When it’s approved, B & D Dairy receives an Animal Waste Storage Structure permit.
Dolata said the plans are also sent to the DNR, which will ask – if necessary – for any changes required under the law, and after those are complete, issue an approval letter.