Three days before Christmas in 2014, a Kewaunee, Wisconsin family and their visiting relatives had to leave their home to celebrate the holiday in a motel. Their drinking water seemed contaminated, and tests from a few days prior indicated the presence of coliform and E. coli bacteria in their well. A week later, their water still smelled off and had a “milky yellow color.” Eventually, they’d find out that the wetlands around their land had also been polluted.
Here’s what happened, according to court documents filed in the Kewaunee County Circuit Court on June 13, 2017: On December 15, 2014, Stahl Brothers Dairy—a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO—based in Luxemburg, Wisconsin, applied 747,000 gallons of manure to frozen fields across the street from the family’s (whose names were redacted) property. On the same day, a testing service collected drinking water samples. That’s when the E. coli and bacteria were discovered.
It rained on the next two days, causing more of the manure to run off the frozen fields and into nearby wetlands.
The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) conducted an inspection of the farm and neighboring land on December 22, 2014. Inspectors found snowmelt and manure running into wooded grasslands east of the farm. During that inspection, they collected more samples from the family’s well. The results indicated 4,710,000 gene units of bovine bacteroides species. That number, according to Kate Clark, technical director at environmental biotechnology testing lab Microbial Insights, is a pretty strong indication the pollution came from cows. DNR eventually concluded that the neighboring CAFO’s runoff had the potential to impact the well.
It’s been three years since the contamination. But this week, the Wisconsin Department of Justice confirmed that the dairy farm—which houses an estimated 1,250 animals and collected $172,293 in federal subsidies from 1995 to 2014, according to the advocacy organization Environmental Working Group—has been fined $50,000 for that incident and a similar one the following year.
The story is an all-too-familiar one for Wisconsinites living in Kewaunee County, home to about 20,000 people and nearly five times that many cows. According to nonpartisan watchdog group the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, almost a third of the Kewaunee County wells tested in 2015 contained water that was too contaminated to drink.
In many ways, Kewaunee County is one of the worst places in the country to set up a high-density dairy. It’s situated on what’s called karst topography, which is particularly vulnerable to groundwater pollution. According to Scott Dye, formerly of the Sierra Club and a current regional representative for the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project (SRAP), “It’s very thin soils over very fractured limestone bedrock. And it’s characterized by a lot of sinkholes, a lot of what they call ‘losing streams’ that are running along the ground, and all of a sudden just disappear because they go into groundwater.” Which means runoff and pollution are a very real concern. “When you have 98,000 cows crappin’ 80 pounds a piece all over the place, it doesn’t take long for it to become a public health emergency,” he says.
In a CAFO—and there are 16 in Kewaunee county—waste is collected into what are called lagoons. From there, it’s sprayed out over fields as fertilizer.
Wisconsin dairy farmers have permits that determine the amount of waste they can apply to their land. The numbers vary based on each field’s proximity to water, its slope, and a variety of other factors. And the farmers have to comply with all kinds of rules: They can’t discharge waste within 200 feet of a stream, they can’t pollute the neighbors’ wells, they can’t exceed their permits.
What happened in December of 2014 was that Stahl applied to DNR for emergency approval to apply manure to frozen ground. The farm was granted approval to apply 7,000 gallons per acre. But the hose used to apply the manure leaked, discharging instead about 10,000 gallons per acre, according to the farmer’s estimation. Stahl Brothers Dairy did not respond to request for comment, but did blame a contractor in a statement to Wisconsin’s Fox 11 News: “The third-party applicator hired by the farm to apply manure did not comply with certain manure application regulations. Mechanical failures and adverse weather conditions at that time resulted in applications outside of the authorized application areas.” In addition to the fine, Stahl Brothers has promised to train its contractors in responsible management.
According to Dye, environmental violations in Wisconsin’s dairy industry go largely unpunished. He calls the Stahl Brothers case “just the tip of the iceberg,” saying the $50,000 fine won’t do much to deter the dairy farm because, he alleges, they’ve been violating DNR standards for 30 years. (He would know—he spent a year and a half assembling a Dairy Industry Rap Sheet for Kewaunee County.)
But Wisconsin has a rich history of both dairy farming and environmental stewardship, and the two coexisted peacefully for a long time. “Actually, Wisconsin is really kind of a tragedy. Wisconsin used to, ten years ago, be just like Minnesota and several upward Midwestern states—they had one of the best Department of Natural Resources, they did an outstanding job of protecting their resources, they have a great public trust doctrine where all waters belong to the people of Wisconsin, and then Governor Walker was elected,” Dye says, referring to Republican Governor Scott Walker, who was elected in 2010.
According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, Governor Walker has received more than $710,000 in campaign contributions from the Dairy Business Association, a lobby group that advocates for large-scale dairies. After he was elected, Walker appointed Cathy Stepp to lead the DNR. “She had made a name for herself in the legislature saying she wanted to dismantle and destroy the DNR,” says Dye.
In 2016, Stepp, who was appointed in 2011, announced a plan to reorganize and streamline the agency, which was facing serious budget constraints. The plan included turning over the drafting of environmental permits (which includes the manure handling practices of large farms) to consultants. Conservation organizations argued in turn, that the changes would make the state’s environmental laws vulnerable to less enforcement. “We’re not talking about changing standards — there are no regulation changes. That really needs to be emphasized here,” Stepp told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in December of 2016. “There’s been some rumor mongering out there. We are talking about how we meet or even exceed expectations that have been put upon us by the public, and other levels of government, and how do we do that in the most efficient way.”
These days, Dye says the agency is a shell of what it used to be. “The agency is grossly underfunded, grossly understaffed, it’s a political hot potato. There’s a lot of people still working at the agency that would like to do their jobs. They just know that if they do their jobs, and do it correctly, they’re going to pay a price.”
After Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel took office in January of 2015, Dye says the Justice Department ceased its practice of issuing press releases when it levied fines and penalties. The court documents I received were obtained via an open records request from SRAP.
According to WiscNews, environmental enforcement has “waned” since Walker’s election. But on Tuesday—the same day that SRAP released news of the fines—Schimel’s office announced it had obtained 22 environmental enforcement judgments in the first half of 2017.
Dye sees Schimel’s release of enforcement data as a step in the right direction and a potential indication that the office will move toward greater transparency. “You have to hold these folks publicly accountable. If we had not distributed this information, no one that even lives in Kewaunee County would’ve known this happened, much less anywhere in the state.”
Asked if he thought the $50,000 fine was proportional to the damage done to the well water and the wetlands, Dye didn’t mince words. “No. That’s not fair at all.”