Emerald Sky Dairy's manure spill gives neighbors pause
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories exploring local and state issues related to dairy farms.
By John R. Russett and Maureen McMullen
EMERALD, Wis. — After more than 20 years of living on their grassy acreage tucked between farms, Chad and Mary Enerson were mortgage-free and the dream of replacing their century-old farmhouse was in sight.
Their prospective house overlooked a pond pulsing with chirps and croaks, engulfed in a continuous buzz from the wildlife that gather at dusk.
The couple even explored avenues to earn some retirement income from the pond — breeding shrimp or getting a permit to sell salamanders.
Their plans changed when a neighboring dairy applied to expand its concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO.
In May 2016, Emerald Sky Dairy owner Todd Tuls of Tuls Dairies applied to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to expand from 2,460 to 8,804 animal units.
Tuls, who took ownership in March 2016, came under fire earlier this year when the WDNR launched an investigation of a large-scale manure spill at the Emerald facility, which occurred in late 2016 and went unreported until March 29.
In a statement, the company cited the infrequent use of a pump connected to the pipeline as well as weather conditions for the reporting delay.
Tuls portrayed the spill as a "black eye," one nearly impossible to foresee or detect.
"I don't want to throw a lot of blame on the previous owner," Tuls said. "But you know, this is a facility that I bought used and when I bought it, it was very, very much neglected."
Tuls described the dairy's prior setup as a "recipe for disaster" and the current manure storage system as "borderline."
"When we bought it, it was covered in snow, which was the perfect time for the guy to sell it, to be honest with you," he said. "It was a poor time for us to buy it — I'll probably never buy a used dairy again."
The plan, Tuls explained, was not to operate the existing facility, but pursue a permit to build another facility next door.
By this point, however, the Enersons had seen enough to halt construction plans for their new house.
Mary Enerson said she believes farmers in the area typically act as stewards of the land, but "this is not a company where that's happening."
In March, a WDNR notice of noncompliance addressed to Tuls' son T.J. at Emerald Sky Dairy stated the dairy violated terms of its Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit by applying solid manure to frozen ground during a restricted period.
According to the notice, Emerald Sky Dairy said a new employee's unfamiliarity with the permit restrictions resulted in the violation.
"Nobody lives there," Mary Enerson said. "This is a conglomerate, corporate farm where they could care less if there's a spill there or not, as evidenced by the fact that they had a spill and didn't report it for forever."
READ MORE: Tuls Dairies has had issues in Nebraska
Although the Enersons have encountered issues with nearby farms before, Chad Enerson said they have always been able to address problems directly with their neighbors.
"My neighbor across there has a huge farm, and they're a family farm," he said. "They live out here, live on one of their farms. You can go talk to them."
Tuls maintains he has a manager on site and — contrary to his candid assessment of the dairy's former condition — took responsibility for what transpired at his St. Croix County dairy in the months since he took over.
"We've been kind of quiet," Tuls admitted. "But it's quiet because I don't know if I can change people's perception.
"It is tough," he continued, "but I'm not going to make excuses. We're responsible. Anything that happens, it's really, truly our responsibility."
This isn't the first time Tuls has taken responsibility for a spill at one of his dairies.
An investigation of Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality reports revealed that in May 2005, a neighbor of Double Dutch Dairy — a roughly 5,000-cow dairy owned by Tuls near Lincoln, Neb. — noticed dead fish floating on his pond. A few days later, he reported a stench.
Upon investigation, a county deputy discovered waste flowing over a spillway from one of the dairy's lagoons.
An official was taken to the neighbor's pond and noticed an odor similar to the dairy's waste lagoons as well as "many dead fish" floating on the surface, according to the NDEQ report, which estimated the size of the spill to be approximately 324,000 gallons.
A design flaw paired with poor timing resulted in the spill's severity, Tuls said, and he worked with authorities on cleanup efforts along with improvements to the Double Dutch facility — similar to his plans for Emerald Sky Dairy.
A meeting with the WDNR is set for July 11, where Tuls said he plans to disclose deficiencies in the existing dairy's facilities.
"We need to improve those (deficiencies) and we need to make sure this never happens again," Tuls said. "And the way we're going to do that is by building a new lagoon in the proper location."
Plans are underway for the new lagoon with capacity to store up to 390 days of waste, according to Tuls, and is scheduled to be completed before fall.
Ultimately, Tuls said oversight is not the enemy.
"Accountability is a good thing," he said. "I have no problem with people holding us accountable, because occurrences like this make us better. A spill makes us better. We'll improve from this and change facility designs. Good things will come out of a bad situation."
Cleaning up the spill will cost the dairy close to $1 million, Tuls said, and installing the new lagoon will cost anywhere from $1 million to $1.5 million.
Aside from Emerald Sky Dairy, Tuls owns Double Dutch Dairy and Butler County Dairy in eastern Nebraska.
In 2011, operations began in southern Wisconsin outside of Janesville at Rock Prairie Dairy and Tuls recently received county approval for Pinnacle Dairy, a new dairy site west of Rock Prairie in Green County.
In total, Tuls said he is responsible for approximately 40,000 dairy cows.
Michael Brun contributed to this story.