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Changes could be in store following Emerald manure spill

St. Croix County Supervisor Jill Berk, left, Community Development Director Ellen Denzer and County Supervisors Agnes Ring and Tom Coulter were discussed at an April 20 meeting whether the county is legally obligated to notify the public of incidents like agriculture spills. Photo by Maureen McMullen.

A large-scale dairy manure spill under Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources investigation could prompt policy changes in St. Croix County regarding groundwater quality and public notification.

The department launched its investigation of Emerald Sky Dairy following a months long gap between the spill and the report filed with the state.

The spill, a DNR press release confirmed, occurred late December 2016, but was not reported to the state until March 29, 2017.

A report was filed after St. Croix County officials received an anonymous tip and urged operators to contact the state.

Most of the seepage was contained in the surrounding wetland area downslope from the dairy's wastewater storage facility. The wetlands drain through a ditch and enter a stormwater pond about 1,200 feet away.

A group of Emerald residents who live near the dairy worry that spilled manure could contaminate groundwater and seep into their homes' wells.

The Wisconsin Department of Health identifies a number of health risks associated with manure well contamination, including illness caused by E. coli and salmonella bacteria.

Notification

Emerald residents who spoke at the county's April 20 Community Development Committee meeting said they were not adequately informed of the manure spill.

Among them was Kim Dupre, public relations coordinator for local group Emerald Clean Water for All.

"A neighbor called and asked if our water is okay. I said I don't know-- none of us know," Dupre said. "I talked to another neighbor who is eight months pregnant, she's due in two weeks. When she found out, it was on Facebook. She was irate that she did not know about this and how this affects her baby."

Kim Dupre with Emerald Clean Water for All was among those who spoke during the April 20 meeting. Photo by Maureen McMullen.

Community Development Chair Agnes Ring questioned what obligation the county and operators have to notify the public of a spill.

Community Development Director Ellen Denzer said there are none.

Committee members instructed the county to mail DNR press releases about the spill to property owners within a two-mile radius of the spill.

The release was mailed out April 25.

Because the state's investigation of the spill remains active, Denzer said, the information is limited to what the DNR releases.

"I don't think we're trying to ignore the situation, we are trying to responsibly respond to it within the limitations we have to work in," Denzer said.

But County Board member Jill Berke said more needs to be done to ensure neighbors are alerted of incidents like agricultural spills.

"It should be a function of this department and the public health department to provide a letter to the residents in that area," Berke said at the meeting. "People need to be contacted not by email, not by having to go through a website... I think that's a policy that's apparently not in place, that a letter needs to go out."

Berke serves as an alternative on the county's groundwater quality study group.

Made up of county supervisors and citizen members, the group is tasked with researching groundwater issues throughout the county and making recommendations to the full County Board after its scheduled six months.

Among their tentative recommendations is a revamped system of notifying residents of areas affected by agricultural spills.

"Breaches of wastewater vessels will occur, and we need to establish best practices for communicating with neighboring owners, or the public at large with such cases," said Ring, a study group member. "We learned there was a recent problem, and what is the method for people to know? What we're suggesting here is that they're made aware."

The group has partnered with experts from the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, farmers, groundwater hydrologists and wastewater specialists in their research.

A County Board resolution established the group in December 2016, several months after Emerald Sky submitted an application to the county to more than triple the operation's animal units.

In order to permit an expansion of that size, Wisconsin DNR requires Concentration Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) to conduct a nutrient management plan to prevent wastewater runoff.

Reporting

The spill also prompted discussion on changes to the county's agriculture spill reporting system.

At the April 25 study group meeting, Ring recommended creating incentives for operators to report spills.

"Breaches of wastewater vessels will occur, and we need to establish best practices for communicating with neighboring owners, or the public at large with such cases," Ring said. "... What we want to have is a culture that understands that that will happen, and then we act to solve the problem."

Wisconsin state law requires CAFO operators to immediately report spills.

A statement from Emerald Sky Dairy said a misjudgement by the dairy's former manager led to the delayed report to the DNR.

Nebraska-based Tuls Dairies purchased the Emerald dairy facility last year and operates with about 2,400 animal units.

The former manager, the statement said, discovered the leak during a pipeline repair by local professional contractors and incorrectly told the dairy's former operator that the leak had been found early and was immediately addressed.

The company cited the infrequent use of a pump connected to the pipeline and weather conditions for the delay.

"This was an unintentional incident that we take very seriously and we regret that we weren't immediately aware of the extent of the spill," Emerald Sky owner Todd Tuls said in the statement. "We are working closely and diligently with the WDNR to address the issue. We assessed the extent of the spill with them and came up with a cleanup plan. We're working with our engineer and manure pumping contractor to clean it up."

Tom Zwald, a citizen member of the group, said any new policies would have to establish an appropriate timeframe for operators to report incidents like spills.

"If you're the neighbor, the appropriate time is immediately, but if you're the operator it may be the next day," he said. "Three months is absolutely unacceptable; but there is a timeline and everyone wants to know the second it happens, but there are only so many seconds."

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