A mix of outrage, despair, anger and resignation was scattered through the public comments that were shared Tuesday as the state Department of Natural Resources held a public hearing in Luxemburg on El-Na Farms’ application to renew its wastewater discharge permit.
El-Na Farms is a sixth-generation dairy farm owned by Barry, Lonnie, and Shane Fenendael at E4029 Pheasant Road in the town of Lincoln in northern Kewaunee County. It meets the definition of a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) with approximately 1,350 milking and dry cows, 850 heifers, and 500 calves equaling 2,675 animal units, according to its application for renewal of its five-year Wisconsin Pollution Discharge Elimination System Permit (WPDES).
Over the course of its next permit – for which the DNR has given preliminary approval – the farm plans to expand through internal growth to approximately 5,970 animal units.
Given recently released data about groundwater pollution in the county, the 10 speakers at the hearing argued that further expansion of the county’s bovine population is hard to defend.
“I’ve known the Fenendael family for decades; in fact, Lonnie went to school with my daughter,” said Mick Sagrillo, chairman of the town planning commission in Lincoln. “They are a good, responsible farm family in the community.”
Sagrillo noted that he also serves with Lonnie Fenendael on the plan commission.
“I actually think it’s very responsible for El-Na to re-up their WPDES permit,” Sagrillo said, “but I seriously question the increase in herd size … To me this is just completely and totally incomprehensible.”
The town of Lincoln recently completed its draft comprehensive plan, and Sagrillo said researchers found that 80 percent of the town is on sensitive soil that could be considered inappropriate for spreading of manure, including wetlands and areas where the soil depth is less than 5 feet to bedrock.
“I don’t know where they’re going to put the liquid manure – solid manure’s a different story,” he said.
Sagrillo said he has been attending similar hearings for about 16 years and was discouraged when DNR official David Bougie effectively said, “Look, as long as the farm fills out the application, and the application is complete, and the application is not falsified in any way, we have no choice but to grant the WPDES permit.”
He urged the DNR employees running the hearing – agricultural runoff management specialists Casey Jones and Ben Uvaas – to “work very hard to change that policy within the department.”
Several speakers referred to the June 7 presentation by Mark Borchardt of the USDA and Maureen Muldoon of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh of data that found, among other findings, that on a countywide basis 26% to 28% of private wells are positive for total coliforms, E. coli or nitrate, and that at depths to bedrock less than 20 feet, contamination rates generally exceed statewide averages.
“Just from common sense, from a person who thinks and cares and has grandkids in the county, shouldn’t we be figuring out how to handle the existing bovine toxins in our water supply before adding more?” asked Lynn Thompson of Casco.
“What is it going to take to finally address the state of emergency we have here in Kewaunee County and our health and water crisis?” said Nancy Utesch of the town of Pierce.
County Board Supervisor Lee Luft asked the DNR not to approve any more herd expansions unless and until a method of waste treatment can be proven successful over the long term.
“We now know with 100 percent certainty that we have Kewaunee and Door county residents who live every day with unsafe water for drinking, bathing, and even washing their dishes, and yet here we are on the cusp of yet another major herd expansion and the accompanying waste generation,” Luft said.
No one spoke in favor of granting the permit during the hearing, which lasted a little more than an hour.
Jones, who drafted the permit, said citizens have until 4:30 p.m. July 5 to submit written comments to Casey Jones, DNR, 625 E. County Road Y, Suite 700, Oshkosh, WI 54901 or Casey.Jones@wisconsin.gov. Written comments would be given the same weight as oral testimony, Jones added.