Groups ask EPA to step up efforts to protect drinking water

by Lee Bergquist, originally posted on March 9, 2016


Environmental groups asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday to assume a stronger role in northeastern Wisconsin to protect the public from contaminated drinking wells that environmentalists say have been polluted by heavy manure spreading.

The groups said in a letter they aren’t satisfied with the response by the state Department of Natural Resources to address well contamination using its authority to regulate groundwater.

On Oct. 22, 2014, the environmental groups asked the EPA to exercise emergency powers under the Safe Drinking Water Act to investigate groundwater contamination from manure spreading at large-scale dairy farms.

That prompted the DNR to organize a series of work groups to find ways to solve the problems. But progress has been too slow, according to the groups.

“We are insisting on immediate relief for Kewaunee County residents who can’t drink their water,” Sarah Geers, an attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates, said in a statement.

The DNR says manure issues in Kewaunee County have been a priority for the agency and it is working on short- and long-term solutions. DNR officials plan to meet with the EPA on March 16 to discuss the matter, the agency says.

Kewaunee County has become the epicenter of controversy over large-scale dairy farms and their potential to cause air and water pollution.

The county has 16 large dairy farms, regulated as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, that have 700 or more milking cows on each facility. It also lies in a region where soils can lie a few feet above fractured bedrock, making it easier for manure to reach groundwater.

The Journal Sentinel reported in December that one-third of wells tested in the county were found to be unsafe and failed to meet health standards for drinking water.

The testing was conducted by the U.S. Agriculture Research Service and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Researchers found that 34% of 320 wells tested in November failed to meet standards. The pollutants were nitrates and total coliform. Both can be found in manure but can come from other sources, too.

DNR spokesman George Althoff said five of the 320 wells tested positive for E. coli — an indicator of fecal contamination. Well owners were asked to call the DNR to investigate the source of contamination. So far, one well owner has responded and qualified for financial assistance to replace the well.

Don Niles, a CAFO operator from Casco, said water contamination issues developed over many years and won’t be solved with a quick fix. “We all understand that agriculture can have a negative impact on some wells,” he said in a statement. “But we also have to acknowledge that many wells have not been affected.”

An added frustration for those with bad wells: A kiosk at Algoma High School that provides free drinking water to households with contaminated wells has been vandalized three times in the past 21/2 months, according to the principal, Nick Cochart, who lives in a part of the county where there is well contamination.

“It’s been frustrating,” he said. “It’s just gotten out of hand.”

The environmental groups’ most immediate concern is that the DNR or EPA provide clean drinking water to residents with polluted wells.

“Our first and foremost task since Day One has been to provide people with clean water, and access to clean water,” said Elizabeth Wheeler, an attorney with Clean Wisconsin. “But they haven’t done that yet.”

Other demands:

■ EPA should conduct closer oversight of the DNR in Kewaunee County and work with the state to establish a timeline and implement recommendation from the work groups.

The DNR-organized groups were made up of agricultural interests, local residents and others to find solutions to well contamination. Some of the recommendations were made in December, and the environmental groups are concerned the DNR hasn’t acted on them yet.

Althoff said DNR is studying the recommendations. He said one key group hasn’t finished its work yet.

Niles said the groups’ work shouldn’t be dismissed. “A great deal of energy has been committed to the process,” he said.

■ EPA should conduct research and groundwater monitoring to find the root cause of water contamination. If the EPA can’t or won’t, the EPA should order farms in areas vulnerable to contamination to install monitoring wells.

An EPA spokeswoman said the agency has not had time to review the groups’ letter.

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