DNR weighs decision on large dairy project

Lee Bergquist
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
The Wood County site would have 5000 cows.

The state Department of Natural Resources is inching closer to a long-anticipated decision involving the construction of a massive dairy farm that would house more than 5,000 cows in Wood County in central Wisconsin.

The DNR's environmental impact statement on the Golden Sands Dairy — and the decision that would follow — is being closely watched because of the scale of the project and the vulnerability the sandy soil in the region could pose on groundwater.

And it comes as the DNR last Wednesday said it plans to streamline some regulatory functions, including permitting of large farms. Conservationists say they will be monitoring the changes to ensure environmental standards won't be weakened.

Also on Wednesday, in Wood County in the Town of Saratoga where Golden Sands would operate, the town board approved regulations giving it new inspection authority and other powers for livestock and manure storage practices aimed at large farms.

The town's 5,000 residents rely on private wells for drinking water, and officials are worried about the impact of irrigation and manure spreading on shallow wells typical of the region.

"The bottom line is that this is about protecting the town's drinking water," said Paul Kent, an attorney who represents the town.

The town's action follows other efforts in Wisconsin where localities have written ordinances or passed moratoriums aimed at concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, because of concerns about air and water pollution.

CAFOs have emerged as a contentious issue in recent years as the number of the farms has grown.

Citizens are fighting large farm applications for a dairy operation in Green County in the southwest and a pig farm in Bayfield County near Lake Superior.

CAFO development has been a longstanding controversy in Kewaunee County in the northeast, where studies have found widespread well contamination.

CAFO opponents say bad wells are linked to manure spreading, but experts say other factors, such as failing septic systems, also could contribute to the problem.

The DNR has never rejected a CAFO application. But the agency has imposed conditions on some of the farms to address environmental concerns.

In June 2012, Golden Sands Dairy LLC and Ellis Industries Saratoga LLC sought to develop a farm for 5,300 cows that would produce 55 million gallons of manure a year, according to state records.

To make way for the farm, 4,660 acres of red pine forest would be logged.

The dairy also is proposing to use 32 high-capacity wells for irrigation that would have a maximum annual water use of 1.93 billion gallons.

The average state dairy farm has a herd size of 129, according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

The DNR appeared close to releasing an environmental impact statement on Golden Sands earlier this fall.

The agency told two lawmakers in September an announcement would come by the end of the month — according to the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune.

But regulators last week declined to say when they will release the report and said they are re-examining ways groundwater and surface water could be affected.

"We were not comfortable with some of the technical information and we wanted to do more work," said Dan Helsel, an environmental manager for the DNR.

Town residents and conservation groups have expressed concerns that soil conditions in the region can't support a farm of this scale.

The Town of Saratoga's ordinances, which passed 4-0 by the board, included documents that suggested there is potential manure can contaminate groundwater in the region's sandy soil.

The town obtained DNR-required groundwater monitoring data from Central Sands Dairy, a CAFO in nearby Juneau County, owned by the developers of the Golden Sands. That data showed in some cases groundwater far exceeded the state human standard for nitrates.

Nitrates can originate from fertilizer and manure. Infants and pregnant women are at a higher risk of harm from nitrates, which can cause "blue baby syndrome" due to a reduction of oxygen in the blood.

Central Sands and Golden Sands would have the same owners — the Wysocki Family of Companies of Bancroft in Portage County, which is also a large potato grower.

Calls to the company were not returned.

The water quality data is an "illustration of how quick nitrates can move through the soil," said Kent, a Madison attorney who added the town's new ordinance is a recognition "that there are areas of the state — and this is one of them — where it is really difficult, if not impossible, to put a facility and not have an impact on the groundwater."

Wisconsin's system for permitting CAFOs was highlighted last week when the DNR announced details on its reorganization plans.

Among the proposals is a plan to find more efficient ways to review some regulatory permits, including CAFOs.

The plan is to create what the DNR calls an "assurance program" of qualified consultants where there is upfront agreement on technical criteria that would give the agency confidence information submitted is accurate.

Currently, there are cases like Golden Sands where the state and farms exchange information repeatedly, drawing out the process for months or years.

With a depleted workforce, the DNR is looking for efficiencies. The concern of CAFO opponents: The reforms could mean less scrutiny.

The DNR says that's not going to happen. DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp said in a statement the DNR "is not going to be allowing large livestock operations to write their own environmental permits."

The changes "make a whole lot of sense," said John Holevoet, director of government affairs for the Dairy Business Association, who believes the strength of an assurance program is that it removes subjectivity. "You are going to know if someone is going to do this right or wrong pretty quickly."