They came, nearly 100 strong, on a frigid April afternoon in Adams, Wis., for a free lesson in DNR Arithmetic. Sample problem:
If ground water with more than 10 parts nitrates per million is dangerous for human consumption, then groundwater with 28 parts per million is: a) worse, b) much worse, c) obscene, or d) just fine.
If you chose d) you could have a future in modern Wisconsin resource management. In fact, you might want to apply for work with Burr Oak Heifers LLC.
Burr Oak is an agri-business behemoth that used to be called Opitz Custom Heifers before it changed its name. You’d probably change your name, too, if you’d been slapped with a $65,000 fine last summer for polluting groundwater on a field across the road from a community church and then been levied up to $10,000 more for ruining your neighbor’s well. You might even consider changing your ways.
But Opitz/Burr Oak simply changed its tactics. It abandoned the feedlot where it had earned the fine and replaced it with plans to open a 3,100-heifer CAFO on the same site, complete with four massive barns and a concrete manure pit the size of two football fields with space left over for square dancing. The barns and the pits are designed to reduce the nitrate seepage, but it’s not guaranteed that they will. And if they don’t …well, the DNR is willing cut Burr Oak some slack.
Lots of slack. Under the discharge permit granted to the CAFO by the agency, the company can pollute to the tune of 28 parts per million, or a little less than three times the amount that got it into trouble in the first place. Of course, that sounds preposterous, but it’s also totally legal. You say you’d like an explanation?
So did the five dozen or so people who gathered at the Adams County Community Center on that cold April day for a DNR public hearing on the permit. Briefly, this is what they heard:
Yes the creative capitalists at Burr Oak (Or is it Opitz? You can’t tell the polluters without a scorecard) despoiled the ground water across the road from the church. But they weren’t the only ones. Some of the pollution came from farms off the site. How much of it? The DNR doesn’t know. Where did the outside pollution come from? The DNR can’t say. What can it do about it if it finds out? Nothing. Because if a farm’s not a CAFO, it doesn’t need a permit to mess up everybody’s water. Are you slapping yourself upside the head yet? Hang on, it gets worse.
Under the DNR’s reasoning, Burr Oak gets the permit because it can’t be expected to solve a ground water conundrum that it was only partly responsible for creating. Never mind that the CAFO stands a pretty good chance of adding to the nightmare by jamming 3,100 heifers into a space previously occupied by 4,250 cows. In its defense, the company will spend a lot of money on plastic and concrete to stop that from happening, and if that doesn’t work — well at least you’ll know they tried really hard.
You’re probably wondering how the DNR came up with the allowable figure of 28 parts nitrates vs. the 10 that modern science tells us can make people very sick. Glad you asked. It seems test wells on the property showed the level had spiked to as many 29 parts per million when Opitz, er Burr Oak, was running the place as a feed lot. So as a CAFO, it gets to creep right up to brink of the worst scenario.
Can this really be happening? Sure it can. In a state political climate where companies are people, and people are inconveniences, it’s happening all the time. Theoretically, this isn’t a done deal because the permit isn’t final yet. But when the DNR people at the meeting were asked if there was a realistic chance that the permit decision would be reversed, they said no. The best that could happen would be that some of the terms might get altered.
So why did sixty people put on their winter jackets, warm up their cars and drive to the Adams County Community Center to listen to three hours of Katzenjammer mathematics? Some of them may not have known it was lock for the Burr Oak crowd; some of them may have felt a need to make the DNR aware of a lot of really pertinent information; and some were probably just steamed.
Whatever their reasons for being there, they had some really interesting things to say. One of them for instance wondered if any of the people who stand to get rich from this project will ever have to drink the water they’re polluting, or do they all live somewhere else? Bet you can answer that one yourself.
Another suggested that you can get a pretty good idea of the character of a company that would build one of these monstrosities 200 yards from a church. Then again there’s one a few towns over that’s expanded to within a quarter mile of a grade school. What next, a cemetery? Make sure Grandpa’s coffin is tight.
Another theorized that the trend to more and more CAFOs and fewer and fewer family farms may eventually result in a change in the state motto. Instead of “America’s Dairy land” we’ll be “America’s Manure Sewer.” It rhymes if you say it just right.
And a couple actually sympathized with the good folks at the DNR. They had a point when they said the agency scientists have been overwhelmed by the Madison politicians. “You don’t get paid enough to put up with this,” said one citizen and that drew a smile from some of the DNR pros. “The DNR has been castrated,” said another, and that didn’t.
As one lady pointed out, this kind of thing won’t end until the right people are voted into office.
Or maybe the wrong ones start representing their constituents instead of their political contributors out of a sense of fair play.
Yeah, that will happen. On a cold day in Adams. Or someplace else.