The news on the surface seems to suggest the State of Wisconsin prevailed with justice by taking a firm stand on behalf of the residents who were negatively impacted in Kewaunee County, where cattle outnumber people nearly 5 to 1. In 2017 up to 60 percent of sampled wells in a Kewaunee County study contained fecal microbes, many of which are capable of making people and calves sick. So it might seem needless to say for those who have endured polluted and colored drinking water for many years, the meager $215,000 settlement of ‘pollution allegations’ by Kinnard Farms rings harsh and hollow. While one can rightly approve of the determination shown by the Department of Justice to challenge the wrongdoing of this corporate farm the final financial outcome is a sad joke.
The Legislature’s finance committee is scheduled to approve the deal this week, and the press is reporting this small fine will settle allegations that Kinnard Farms improperly spread manure in Kewaunee and Door counties between 2018 and 2022. The settlement also calls for Kinnard Farms to upgrade two waste storage facilities and a feed storage area.
If you have not heard of Kinnard Farms it is not due to their name being absent on the lips of Kewaunee residents. For years one of Wisconsin’s largest dairy operations in the northeastern region of the state, with 16 industrial farms, has created agricultural pollution where testing has proven outrageous levels of contaminants in residents’ private drinking water wells. Contaminants that match fecal matter in farm fields with tap water pollution. How many ways can one say yuck?
In 2021, the state allowed a permit to Kinnard Farms that required the business to monitor at least two sites where it applies manure to the land as fertilizer, with at least three wells per site. The sites selected must have a shallow depth to the bedrock, where the groundwater resides. The business, of course, and as one might imagine contends the testing regime is too expensive. As such, they are suing the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. There is enough money to hire a law firm in Madison but not enough to test and keep local residents safe from contaminants in the drinking water.
We all take for granted the clarity of our tap water and the safety of drinking it, brushing our teeth, and using it for cooking and showering. But our fellow citizens in Kewaunee County when turning on the tap are aware that pollution issues are front and center due to manure having been applied during spring, summer, and fall on area land. As their local students are taught in science classes, their topsoil is a relatively short distance from the groundwater in the area, due to its unique hydrogeology. This is the basic understanding as to why many taxpayers can show bottles of dirty water taken from the kitchen tap. Who can blame that county for raising holy heck about what has been done all in the name of a corporate farm making huge sums of money?
I noted a WPR news story during the Covid pandemic when most people were taking steps to stay clear of the virus, where it was reported hundreds of people in Kewaunee County were falling ill at home just from their drinking water.
The study predicts cow manure causes 230 cases of acute gastrointestinal illnesses in the county per year, out of 301 total cases of sickness — with an additional 12 cases caused by human waste from septic systems. The contaminant is unknown for the other instances, the authors wrote.
The reason I am animated over this issue is that research is showing that even what was considered a solution to the harm done by Kinnard Farms may not be enough for the safety needs of the citizenry.
Private homeowners in that situation may be eligible for a well compensation program that provides money for filling and sealing old wells, drilling and constructing a new well or installing a treatment system. If they have E. coli in their well, Peninsula Pride Farms Water Well program also offers help.
But Borchardt’s research shows a new or deeper well does not necessarily provide protection.
Tenacity and resolve are traits from the Justice Department that I always find welcoming, but there is no glee to be found with this weak and anemic $215,000 settlement for a corporate farm that has done so much environmental harm. No real justice can be summed up with a $215,000 settlement. Severe lax state regulations regarding agricultural practices allowed people to bring dirty bottled water to the statehouse and place it on my desk and ask for a resolution in the 1990s. They had a right to be angry then. They have even more reason for anger now.