DBA: Lawsuit never about rolling back regulations for large farms
While a dairy group says a recent settlement with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will result in effective and fair regulation of livestock farms, an environmental activist group says the out of court deal undermines the agency's authority to protect the state's water.
The Dairy Business Association (DBA) filed the lawsuit last summer alleging the DNR had side-stepped the legal rule-making process when changing rules for how farmers manage rainwater that comes into contact with feed storage or calf hutch areas.
Under this new oversight and rule change, John Holevoet, director of government relations for DBA said many farmers were faced with spending millions of dollars more on new storage lagoons, calf hutch area improvements and calf barns.
Holevoet said that farmers and memebers of the ag community were not involved in the process of developing either of the new policies.
"Once we became aware of the (new regulations) we repeatedly tried to get the DNR to rethink its positions and to use proper channels (the administrative rule process) to make any changes," Holevoet said. "After more than a year of talking to DNR staff, legislators and other policymakers very little had changed."
With the clock ticking down for farmers facing pending expenses - and even enforcement action due to the "pseudo rules", Holevoet said the group was forced to act.
Under the settlement reached last week, the DNR agreed that vegetated treatment areas (VTAs) are valid pollution control systems and that it would no longer regulate calf hutches.
DNR spokesman Jim Dick told the press that the agency feels the settlement was "an efficient and balanced resolution of a complicated case" and the outcome doesn't change any current environmental protections.
In exchange, the DBA agreed to drop its claim that the environmental agency illegally requires pollution permits for farms regardless if the operation was actually polluting Wisconsin waters.
"This claim was never about rolling back regulations on large farms," Holevoet said in response to claims by environmental activist groups. "It had to do with technicalities of permitting requirements. And we wanted effective regulation that is going to take a thoughtful, personalized approach."
Evan Feinhauer, staff attorney for Clean Wisconsin, one of five environmental groups filing a motion to intervene in the DBA lawsuit, initially claimed the lawsuit filed in Brown County Circuit Court in July "attacks safeguards that protect water from pollution of large livestock operations."
"We're disappointed that the DNR settled this lawsuit before citizen and environmental groups had an opportunity to have their voices heard," Feinhauer said. "This agreement is a deal cut between the DNR and DBA without the participation of any environmental groups or any independent review of the Court."
Other groups filing the joint motion include Clean Water Action Council, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, Milwaukee Riverkeeper and Friends of the Central Sands.
Although Dick said the settlement also reaffirms the DNR has the authority to regulate concentrated feeding operations, Feinhauer says the agreement may move progress in pollution standards in the opposite direction.
"We are concerned that this settlement weakens DNR's ability to responsibly oversee farm operations to protect water quality, potentially leaving the State's waters — including drinking water — at greater risk of contamination of certain farming practices."
Feinhauer said Clean Wisconsin was pleased DBA agreed not to pursue the claim regarding illegal permitting of large livestock operations.
"Had DBA prevailed on that claim, it could have been disastrous for DNR's ability to ensure CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feed Operations) meet standards to reduce water contamination," Feinhauer pointed out.
While Holevoet says the dropped claim would have meant significant changes as to how farms are permitted, he says it doesn't equate to the weakening of rules or environmental protections.
"We were hoping to see a harmonization of state and federal laws while still providing for environmental oversight of farms," he said. "We are very pleased that we scored a victory on our central claims and, at the same time, underscored the significance of Act 21 on how the state needs to regulate."
In an earlier news release, Scott Laeser, water program director for Clean Wisconsin, said the lawsuit was "disappointing" and "inconsistent" with the group's efforts to work with the ag community in finding solutions to reduce water pollution.
Holevoet responded by saying the DBA, which represents dairy farmers, milk processors, vendors and supporting businesses in the dairy industry, applauds the efforts of innovative and committed farmers and their partners for their proactive work to protect the environment.
"It was never our intention to harm that work and we do not think the lawsuit did," Holevoet said. "The outcome of this settlement actually protects the environment and promotes on-farm innovation. Making sure that the new rules from the DNR are properly vetted and subject to scrutiny from our lawmakers and the public protects both farmers and environmental advocates."