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Group claims DNR settlement with Portage County dairy farm is illegal

Lawsuit on behalf of Portage County residents claims deal shut out public input on permit changes

Dairy cows
Cows grazing on a farm Thursday, April 17, 2008, near Rio, Wisconsin. Morry Gash/AP Photo

A new lawsuit claims state regulators reached an illegal deal with a Portage County farm that shut out public input on the operation’s groundwater monitoring as residents have voiced concerns about nitrate contamination of wells.

Midwest Environmental Advocates sued the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Gordondale Farms in Nelsonville on behalf of Portage County residents. In its complaint, the environmental group said residents living nearby the concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, have had nitrate levels in wells that exceed the state health standard of 10 milligrams per liter. One well showed levels nearly five times that amount.

Nitrate contamination has been linked to blue-baby syndrome, thyroid disease and colon cancer. Around 90 percent of nitrate in groundwater can be traced back to agriculture.

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The group said the farm’s groundwater monitoring requirements were weakened under a settlement last year that took place behind closed doors between the DNR and Gordondale. The deal reduced sampling from monthly to quarterly under its CAFO permit. Adam Voskuil, an attorney with the group, said the deal prevented public input in violation of state law.

“DNR had no discretion, they had no ability to consider those comments and do anything with them. So, ultimately, the CAFO and DNR got to establish the terms,” Voskuil said. “Though it’s required by law, DNR ultimately is unable to consider and weigh the public comments and do the right thing and have better groundwater monitoring terms in the permit.”

Dairy cows are seen at a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, in Buffalo County
Dairy cows are seen at a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, in Buffalo County. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of animals living on factory farms in the U.S. grew by 14 percent, even as the overall number of operations shrank. Photo courtesy of Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Watch

A DNR spokesperson declined to comment on pending litigation.

Efforts to reach Gordondale Farms were unsuccessful on Thursday, and an attorney for the farm didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The farm has previously argued that monthly groundwater sampling is unreasonable and costly, adding there’s no evidence its manure spreading fails to comply with groundwater standards.

The lawsuit stems from an ongoing dispute over groundwater monitoring requirements under the farm’s CAFO permit that sets conditions for manure management to protect water among other things. The farm has around 2,200 milking cows, heifers and calves that produce millions of gallons of manure each year. In 2018, around half of 60 wells tested in Nelsonville had nitrate levels exceeding the state’s drinking water standard.

Lisa Anderson, one of the residents represented in the lawsuit, said she’s disappointed the DNR engaged in closed door negotiations with the CAFO.

“Local residents and scientific experts have legitimate concerns about Gordondale’s impact on our drinking water, and we should have had a seat at the table too,” Anderson said in a statement.

Due to the settlement, Voskuil said the permit limited groundwater monitoring from monthly to quarterly for contaminants like nitrates in several wells on a field where manure is spread. He added that the site chosen for monitoring would fail to yield meaningful data to determine the effects of manure spreading on water quality because of its small size. He said the site is also set to receive a minimum of two applications of manure through 2030.

The lawsuit is the latest in a series of challenges to Gordondale’s permit, which was first issued in 2020 without any groundwater monitoring on fields that receive manure. That caused residents to petition for a contested case hearing on the decision.

The DNR, Gordondale, residents and environmental groups ultimately reached a settlement to resolve the matter pending a ruling by the Wisconsin Supreme Court on another case challenging the agency’s authority to require groundwater monitoring under permits. In 2021, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled the DNR had authority to impose those requirements on large farms to protect water quality.

“Once DNR got that authority, we wanted to see groundwater monitoring being used in permits to protect communities, and we started to see that shift in 2021,” Voskuil said. “It felt like almost immediately we’re seeing the department backpedal, creating weaker standards.”

The DNR issued a revised permit in 2022 that required a dozen monthly samples, and the farm contested the requirements. Following that, the DNR agreed to withhold transmission of the farm’s petition for a contested case hearing, negotiating a settlement with Gordondale Farms without including residents.

Voskuil said they’d like to see the farm’s petition for a hearing move forward with the agency supporting better groundwater monitoring requirements. They also want a judge to declare the DNR’s settlement with Gordondale violates state law and set it aside.