Nelsonville residents support well monitoring at Gordondale Farms

Renee Hickman
Stevens Point Journal
Gordondale Farms is seen on Monday, August 24, 2020, in Nelsonville, Wis. Residents in town have seen increased nitrate contamination in their water and believe the farm could be the source.
Tork Mason/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Residents of a community plagued by nitrate pollution turned out at a hearing in support of new measures to monitor a farm they believe is responsible for the contamination.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has proposed modifying the wastewater permit for Gordondale Farms, a dairy operation in Nelsonville, to require the farm monitor groundwater quality in areas where large amounts of manure — a leading cause of nitrate pollution — is being spread.

"All me and my neighbors want is clean drinking water, and the surefire way to get there is with groundwater monitoring wells," said Katy Bailey, a Nelsonville resident who spoke at the meeting.

Ten people spoke in favor of the well monitoring change during Thursday's DNR hearing, with one central Wisconsin dairy farmer making a statement against it.

"What we're asking for here is accountability," said Dave Mangin, another Nelsonville resident.

Gordondale Farms is located near Nelsonville, a village where in 2018, over half the private wells tested by the Portage County Department of Health showed high levels of nitrate contamination.

Nitrates, chemicals that typically enter the water supply through pollution from manure or sewage systems, can cause ill health effects when consumed, such as birth defects, thyroid problems and cancer, especially cancers of the gastrointestinal system.

In September 2020, residents of Nelsonville, whose health problems related to nitrates were reported by USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin later that year, challenged Gordondale's permit because they said the requirements did not do enough to protect the village's drinking water.

In July 2021, a ruling by the Wisconsin State Supreme Court affirmed the ability of the DNR to take into account runoff pollution into drinking water in its decisions on concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, permits. CAFOs are livestock farms with over 1,000 animals. Gordondale is classified as a CAFO because it has 2,500 cows on its facilities. 

As a result of the decision, the DNR is revisiting multiple permits issued to large farms in the state, including Gordondale.

At the meeting, residents from Nelsonville spoke out unanimously in favor of the permit modification, many citing health problems they or family members had experienced that could be tied to the nitrate pollution, and the high cost of removing the contaminants from their water supplies in an area where the only source of water is private wells. 

Bailey, for example, said she, her husband, 16-month-old baby and dog all suffer from hypothyroidism, which she believes is connected to the nitrate pollution.

Meanwhile, Lisa Anderson, a Nelsonville resident who has headed up many of the community's efforts to change Gordondale's permit, said her neighbor could not be at the hearing because he was undergoing treatment for a cancer diagnosis she believes could also be connected to nitrates. 

The one voice speaking out against the permit modification was Adam Onan, dairy manager at Central Sands Dairy in Nekoosa, which has itself been accused of nitrate pollution tied to health problems in surrounding communities. 

In 2019, the dairy was sued by 81 plaintiffs who own property in Juneau County, who said the company knowingly contaminated groundwater and private well systems and endangered its neighbors for at least a decade without warning them.

Onan said Central Sands Dairy had made efforts to mitigate their own nitrate contamination issues, but that the monitoring wells on the Central Sands property continued to return test results showing high nitrate levels. 

Onan said the requirements by the DNR are "on the brink of putting us out of business."

Kyle Gordon, the head of Gordondale Farms, didn't respond to a request for an interview following the hearing, but he told the Stevens Point Journal that he expects monitoring wells to cost his farm at least $150,000 in addition to maintenance and testing. To date, he said, the farm has spent about $60,000 on attorneys, hydrogeologists and improving land management practices to minimize nitrate leaching, where nitrate moves from the soil to groundwater.

But, said Amberle Schwartz, a Stevens Point resident who spoke in favor of the permit modification, "Most businesses with such a high risk of environmental contamination would consider such monitoring as a cost of doing business. This monitoring gives the farmer a chance to prove which of their practices are actually effective at preventing pollution. There's also an opportunity to innovate and move farming into a cleaner and healthier future." 

The Stevens Point Journal also reached out to the DNR for a timeline on when a decision would be made on the permit, and they did not immediately respond.