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Brush Creek fish kills details emerge
Brush Creek_manure in Amish Pond
IN THE INVESTIGATION of the Brush Creek Fish Kill, on the Monroe-Vernon county line, a horse pond in an Amish field was found to be polluted with what appeared to be manure. A runnel of manure was discovered running downhill into the pond, and running downhill from the pond.

MONROE COUNTY - In what reads like a murder mystery, the DNR’s report of the investigation of the largest fish kill of 2019 in the Coulee Region on Brush Creek has brought to light multiple violations for the 4,076.5 animal unit East Town Dairy. The confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) dairy is located almost exactly where the fish kill is believed to have begun, in the Brush Creek headwaters on the Monroe-Vernon county line.

The investigation of the fish kill near East Town Dairy has not explicitly revealed why the fish in Brush Creek died. The investigation of the dairy’s premises did, however, reveal a manure storage structure on the verge of overtopping, manure in a nearby pond in Vernon County, and improper storage of leachate from the silage storage pad, which was observed to be running off onto the landscape.
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The yellow star shows the location where the most recent 2019 fish kill in the Coulee Region started. From that rural Cashton location, the impacted area of the stream continued 1.7 miles downhill.

This is all especially concerning because the high ridge where East Town Dairy is located and spreads their manure is in a very sensitive area that is in the headwaters of Brush Creek, which joins the Kickapoo River just south of Ontario and Knapps Creek, which joins the West Fork Kickapoo near Bloomingdale.

From a study from Michigan State University Extension, published by Christina Curell and Kathy Lee in 2011, we learn:

“Silage leachate is an organic liquid that is formed when water, or in some cases pressure from the structure, comes in contact with silage and runs off. Leachate can be formed as a part of silage storage, especially if the corn or alfalfa is harvested too wet. Water comes in contact with the silage because it is part of the silage. The other source of leachate is rainwater coming in contact with silage and carrying nutrients with it. This leachate has a high biological oxygen demand, BOD. If silage leachate is allowed to reach surface water, oxygen in the water will be consumed so quickly that anything living in the water, including fish, could immediately be in peril. It is estimated that one gallon of silage leachate can lower the oxygen content of 10,000 gallons of river water to such an extent that there is a chance for fish kill. Leachate also can cause algal blooms that will further deplete the oxygen levels of surface water and it can also produce high levels of ammonia which will also cause fish kills.”

The MSU study also explains that groundwater, in addition to surface water, can be impacted:

“Leachate can also impact drinking water. Groundwater is not immune to the hazards of silage leachate. Leachate can increase water’s acidity due to its high nitrate-nitrogen levels. Another side effect of silage leachate in groundwater is a distasteful odor. Wells located within 150 feet to silage storage should be routinely checked for contamination such as nitrates and e. coli.”

As reported in an article in the Oct. 31 issue of the County Linenewspaper in Ontario, Bob Micheel, Monroe County land conservationist, said “leach is never a good thing, but on small farms, what would leak from a silo would only burn the vegetation nearby. On large dairies, where silage is held in concrete bunkers and rolled to remove moisture, liquid must be directed away, often to manure pits.”

According to the County Linestory, Pamela Buss, environmental enforcement specialist with the DNR, told the County Linethat she is reviewing the inspection results. She said it is likely that East Town Dairy will be referred to the Wisconsin Department of Justice for charges. 

Although permits are rarely revoked, Buss said East Town’s permit likely will not be renewed until the farm is brought into compliance with permit regulations.

Heavy rain

In his report, DNR Conservation Warden Matt Modjeski starts by describing the information available on the amount of rain that had fallen in the area of the spill in the first week of October.

“The National Weather Service, located approximately 27 miles from the scene of the fish kill, reported a total of 2.74 inches of rain had fallen between Sept. 29-Oct.7. Greater amounts are believed to have fallen near Cashton.”

The US-Geological Survey (USGS) maintains a monitoring gauge on the Kickapoo River near Ontario. During the first week of October, USGS was involved in a relocation of that gauge, which resulted in a temporary gap in data from that station. Instead of a location near where Brush Creek enters the Kickapoo on a lowlands bridge over Highway 133, the gauge is now located just north of Ontario on a bridge which allows the gauge to be higher up. This was necessary because at the old location, the gauge would go under water in flooding situations.
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By the time investigators arrived on the scene of the Brush Creek fish kill on Monday, Oct. 7, the fish, according to DNR Wildlife Biologist Kirk Olson, had been dead too long to be tested to determine the cause of death. A total of 1,445 dead fish were recovered.

Delayed reporting

DNR investigators arrived on the scene of the Brush Creek fish kill on Monday, Oct. 7, to respond to a report called into the DNR manure spills hotline on Sunday. By the time they got there, the report filed by DNR Conservation Matt Modjeski says,  “the stream was running clear and no obvious signs of manure having entered the creek were visible.”

The fish kill was called in by a resident of Cashton who said that he observed the dead fish on Friday, Oct. 4, had “already spoken with two of his neighbors,” and “suspected liquid manure spreading caused the fish kill.” The confidential informant reported that he had “not seen any manure on area fields.”

Another informant told Modjeski, according to the report, that “they had seen dead fish on or about October 4, and suspected it was from manure run-off as Nick Mlsna at Mlsna East Town Dairy had been spreading liquid manure via pump and hose system on harvested agricultural fields in the area.”

By the time investigators arrived on the scene, the fish had been dead too long for a tissue sample to reveal the cause of their death.

“Based on my conversations with our fish vet and toxicologist, the fish need to be recently dead to allow an evaluation of the cause of death,” DNR Fisheries Biologist Kirk Olson said. “From what I understand, there are a couple reasons for this: 1) some chemicals could be metabolized to the point of not being detectable and 2) bacteria and parasites, which could also cause mortality, change rapidly after death.” 

Olson went on to specify that “in addition, they can’t really verify that manure was the cause, they can only rule out other potential causes of death (e.g. disease, certain chemical spills). The best information for determining if manure caused the kill is evidence of manure entering and/or presence of manure in the stream at the time of the fish kill. That’s why it’s important for these to be reported immediately.”  

The investigation

In his investigation on Monday, Oct. 7, Warden Modjeski observed silage leachate from the silage feed pad area of the farm travelling through a culvert underneath Vernon County Highway D and onto neighboring land to the south.

From there Modjeski drove around the land that drains into the unnamed tributary of Brush Creek, looking for evidence of recent manure spreading on harvested fields. At about 3:30, Modjeski received instructions to proceed to East Town Dairy to inspect the manure pit from Senior Wastewater Specialist Trent Brenny from the Mishicot DNR Station.

Nicholas Mlsna took Modjeski on a tour of fields where manure had recently been spread in a UTV. Modjeski specifically asked to view the harvested corn silage fields near the intersection of Oklahoma Avenue and County Highway D. He told Mlsna that it appeared that manure had recently been applied to those fields.

Mlsna admitted to harvesting silage and having custom manure spreading performed by Brueggen, who had “spread until 9 p.m. in the rain.” Mlsna said they had stopped spreading because their tractor had a broken track. 

In the course of inspecting the fields, the two neared the culvert under County D where Modjeski had previously viewed silage leachate flowing onto land to the south in Vernon County. Mlsna confirmed that it was leachate and not manure, and that it would flow into the Knapp Creek watershed in the headwaters of the West Fork Kickapoo.

The two fields showed no signs of a manure spill, and the two then proceeded to view the manure pit. Modjeski stated in his report that “the manure pit was nearly full” and he also observed several small and several semi-sized tank trucks, later identified as being owned by Klum Agronomics, LLC. There was also a very large trailer-type pump parked on the west side of the pit. No overflow was observed from the pit, nor any rupture in a hose emerging from it.

As the two followed the hose along the north side of the facility’s far east building, Modjeski did observe  some green vegetation/grass in a dry run to be slightly brown/burnt with a wetness that appeared to be manure. Following the hose further, Modjeski observed a larger area to be slightly brown/burnt as well, and pointed this out to Mlsna.
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This chart shows the numbers of brown and brook trout killed in area trout streams in the last two years in the Coulee Region. Three of the four fish kills occurred in 2019.

According to Modjeski, “Mlsna said the wetness was not manure and that the area was always wet with rainwater runoff. Mlsna swiped the top of the wet area with one of his fingers and placed the finger in his mouth.”

In that same area, Modjeski observed an unconnected piece of blue manure hose lying next to the connected hose line, with no cup link on the west or east ends of the hose, and one end clean like it had been freshly cut. Mlsna said he had no idea why the piece of hose was lying there. Modjeski observed no holes in the section of hose. Modjeski said in his report that “he suspected the hose had been cut out and replaced due to it leaking.” His report stated that if a leak had occurred at that location, the manure “would flow downhill…and continue into Brush Creek.”

Driving into another area, the two followed a manure hose that ran through a culvert under County D. Continuing down into a dry run, which continued down to Brush Creek, the two ran into an area too wet to travel into and had to turn around.

An inspection of an above-ground silage tank revealed that there was a manhole cover at the end of a concrete slab that pumps leachate to the silage tank. According to Modkeski, “Mlsna seemed to admit that the small manhole-sized opening was undersized and an engineering oversight or mistake.

Manure in pond

After leaving the property, Modjeski reported he stopped at the culvert at Township 21 that allows for spring water flow and runoff from the farm fields from Mlsna East Town Dairy south of County D. The report states that, “I observed what appeared to be dark water flowing in the ditch above the culvert from uphill to the east.” Modjeski then drove east, and observed a small farm pond in a horse pasture that appeared to be chocolate brown in color, and that the vegetation surrounding the pond was also brown in color “like it had been killed by the liquid in the pond.”

“I knocked at the door to the residence and an unidentified Amish adult female opened the door. I introduced myself and explained my observation,” Modjeski’s report states. “She said that she lived at the residence and the horse pasture was under her family’s ownership. She said that she also had seen the condition of the pond.”

After receiving permission to more closely inspect the pond, Modjeski took pictures of both the inflow from uphill and the outflow downhill from the pond. Upon returning to his truck, Modjeski was met by an Amish male. He told Modjeski that “he suspected the pond was filled with liquid manure run-off from the harvested silage fields located uphill owned by Mlsna East Town Dairy. He said this was not the first time this had happened.”

J&J Custom Farms

On Tuesday, Oct. 8, Modjeski was instructed to contact a manure spreader who performed manure spreading to East Town Dairy – J&J Custom Farms LLC, owned by Jacob Brueggen. When he spoke with Brueggen by phone, Modejeski asked him if a manure hose had sprung a leak.

Brueggen responded that he had talked with Mlsna since he had shown Modjeski the cut section of hose. Brueggen said there had been no hose rupture or leak or manure spill. Brueggen said that the section of hose observed had been inspected prior to commencing spreading at East Town Dairy and was found to have been damaged at a previous job. Therefore, the section of hose had been cut out.

Modjeski asked Brueggen when they had begun manure-pumping operations. Brueggen said they had begun on September 30 at 9 a.m. and continued until October 1 at 4 a.m. Brueggen reported that they had stopped spreading at one point because their tractor had a broken track. When asked if it was raining when they were spreading, Brueggen replied that the tractor they use has 20-inch sub-soil injectors, and that it did rain while they were conducting their operations. Brueggen said they had only spread manure south of County D.

When asked if his company had spread manure on the two fields located north and northwest of the intersection of County D and Oklahoma Avenue, Brueggen said they had not. He did say, however, that he had “overheard talk of East Town Dairy employees spreading pen pack or rotten silage on the fields.”