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DNR hears about the renewal of permit for Babcock Genetics
Eli and Jennifer
JEN ROMBALSKI, the La-Crosse County Director of Public Health, chats with Eli Mandel from theCrawford County Stewardship Project after the Babcock Gentics WPDES permit hearing at the Town of Holland Hall.

LA CROSSE County citizens, including LaCrosse County Director of Public Health Jennifer Rombalski, requested that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) hold a public input meeting to offer citizens the opportunity to express support or opposition to the renewal of the Wisconsin Pollution Discharge Elimination System (WPDES) permit for Babcock Genetics. 

The confined animal feeding operation (CAFO), the only one in LaCrosse County, holds about 11,100 pigs, sows and boards and produces about 11.3 million gallons of manure and wastewater a year.

The hearing was held on Thursday, March 14, at the Town of Holland Hall, with about 40 concerned citizens present.

In 2016, after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigated WNDR administration of the Clean Water Act after well pollution in Kewaunee County had come to light, 

As a result, LaCrosse County became aware of 10 years of concerning water quality results for high levels of nitrate/nitrite in the Babcock Genetics’ monitoring well. 

After obtaining additional information through open records requests, the LaCrosse County Department of Public Health engaged in a well water testing initiative in the Towns of Holland and Onalaska in April and May of 2017. In that initiative, 560 residents tested their private well water, and 542 nitrate tests were completed with 164 (30.3 percent) exceeding recommended safe drinking water levels of 10 micrograms per liter (mcg/L).

History of exceedance

In the results of observations at the Babcock Genetics’ monitoring well through March of 2017, 92 of the 108 samples showed nitrate/nitrite levels above the 10 mcg/L federal standard for safe drinking water.

As reported in the hearing, the nitrate/nitrite results at the monitoring wells have been getting worse since 2016. LaCrosse County Board Supervisor Mike Giese reported that from the beginning of monitoring to 2016, the average nitrate/nitrite result at the monitoring well had been 14 mcg/L. Since 2016, the average has increased to 27 mcg/L.

Rombalski also shared that results for nitrates/nitrites in the monitoring well at the Babcock Genetics facility from April of 2017 to November of 2018 showed that of 36 observations, only five were below the safe drinking water standard, and 20 were double the standard or greater – 20 mcg/L or more. Rombalski observed that these more recent results had not been included in the permit renewal proposal.

“Why were the older results through 2016 included in the permit renewal, but the new results which are getting worse not included?” Giese asked WDNR employee Ben Uvaas, who drafted the CAFO’s WPDES permit renewal proposal. “Under the administration of the last Governor, the DNR’s policy was to do nothing about these kinds of exceedances of safe drinking water standards. But, they weren’t doing nothing – they were actually actively hiding the results from affected citizens even though they know there is connectivity between unsafe levels of nitrate/nitrite in drinking water and human health concerns.”

In addition, Rombalski expressed concern about the age of the PVC liners for the facility’s manure lagoons.

“Those liners have not been updated for 27 years, and all my research suggests that those products are not meant to last more than 20 years,” Rombalski said. “I’m glad to see that a review of those liners is included in the proposed permit, but we already have a problem with nitrates in the water, and once our groundwater is contaminated, it will be very difficult to clean up. Our best bet is to be proactive.”

Affected citizens

Tiffany Hein, a pregnant mother of two children, who is a new resident and well owner in the Town of Holland, was one of the affected citizens that testified at the hearing.

“As a citizen, as a mother, and as a property and well owner, I need to know if my water is safe to drink,” Hein said. “I’ve read about the health affects of high nitrate levels in drinking water, and as a pregnant mother, I know that nitrates are particularly dangerous for me and my unborn child.”

According to information provided by Rombalski at the April 2017 emergency public hearing also held at the Town of Holland Hall, the main populations that are vulnerable to high levels of nitrates are women who are pregnant or of childbearing age, and infants less than six months old. She said that exposure to high levels of nitrates in water can interfere with childhood development, and may be connected to an increased risk for diabetes, cancer and thyroid problems.

“Consuming well water with nitrate levels exceeding the federal limit is particularly dangerous for infants and pregnant women,” Rombalski said. “Indeed, the federal standard was enacted in 1997 because of the connection between elevated nitrates and ‘Blue Baby Syndrome.’ Epidemiological studies have also identified an association between consumption of water with high nitrate levels and thyroid function problems, development of certain kinds of cancer, diabetes, and birth defects among children of mothers exposed during pregnancy.”

Dave Ford, a property and well owner in the Town of Onalaska also spoke at the hearing.

“When expecting mothers visit my home, I feel duty-bound to tell them that they should not drink my water,” Ford said. “As a property owner, I never understood when I was building my house that I might not be able to drink my well water.”

Katherine Warzinski is a resident of Holland Township, and also provided input at the hearing.

“Because the DNR does not enforce the terms of WPDES permits, I am opposed to the reissuance of Babcock Genetics’ permit,” she said.

Glenn Jenkins, a LaCrosse County resident expressed dismay that humans could pollute the two percent of the water on the planet that is drinkable, calling it “shameful.”

“I don’t want to drink pig-shit water, I don’t want to drink human-shit water, I want to drink clean water,” Jenkins said. “You’ve got to regulate with the facts, not just the paperwork. As we’ve seen, you can have your paperwork in order and then just continue to pollute. I want you to do your job.”

Jenkins, who stated that he “knows” Mark Borchardt, the scientist who conducted the study of well water in Kewaunee County, and who is currently the lead investigator on the Southwest Wisconsin Groundwater and Geology study (SWIGG) in Grant, Lafayette and Iowa counties, suggested that Borchardt should be brought in to study the wells in Holland and Onalaska townships.

Erin Adams, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service employee attended the hearing to express that it is not only groundwater that is of concern in this situation, but also surface water quality. Adams said she is concerened about the effects of runoff into the Black River and Brown’s Marsh, part of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.

Farmer speaks

According to the DNR officials present at the hearing, no representatives of Babcock Genetics were present or spoke that day.

Kevin Hoyer, LaCrosse County Board member, farmer, and certified crop consultant and advisor did speak. Hoyer pointed out that the current legal framework for animal agriculture operations with more than 1,000 animal units requires that they apply to the DNR for a WPDES permit.

“I know that the farmers that I work with have done everything that they’ve been asked to do, with due diligence,” Hoyer said. “They have obtained all the permits required, and met all the qualifications placed on them to obtain those permits. A farm of any size should not be discriminated against in their operation.”

Hoyer went on to quote well water testing results from a study conducted by Mark Borchardt, USDA Agricultural Research Service employee, in Kewaunee County. The results he quoted were from a first, initial study, conducted in 2016.

The study, ‘Sources of Fecal Contamination in Groundwater in Rural Northeastern Wisconsin,’ sampled 10 private wells in 2016 in Lincoln Township, which had had brown water events. Of those 10 wells sampled, three were shown to contain contaminants from bovine sources, and three from human sources.

Hoyer was citing the initial study, which led to further studies, and ultimately to the legislature adopting a ‘Sensitive Area’ revision to the state’s one-size-fits-all manure spreading rule, NR.151, for eleven eastern Wisconsin counties. This initial study, with a small sample size of only 10, led to a larger and more definitive study completed in 2017 in which 131 targeted wells were sampled once during the study period, from April 2016 to March 2017.

Eli Mandel of the Crawford Stewardship Project reported on the results of the newer, larger study.

Mandel read from an article,  ‘Most nitrate, coliform in Kewaunee County wells tied to animal waste,’ written by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. 

“In that article, it was re-vealed that Borchardt’s study found the number one risk factor for contamination was the proximity of a well to a manure storage pit. Borchardt said the closest well in the study was 150 feet from a manure pit, but even wells three miles away still have some risk of being contaminated with coliform.”

Mandel reported that among Borchardt’s find-ings:

 • septic systems were not linked with coliform and nitrate contamination, sug-gesting the sources are agri-cultural.

• coliform bacteria con-tamination is linked with how close a well is to a manure lagoon.

• high nitrate contamina-tion (greater than the health limit of 10 parts per million) is linked to presence of agricultural fields around a well, distance to the nearest agricultural field, distance to nearest manure lagoon and depth to bedrock.

• the higher the number of septic system drain fields around a well, the greater the probability of the well becoming contaminated with human waste.

County board members

Members of the LaCrosse County Board that testified at the hearing included Supervisors Mike Giese, Monica Kruse, Kevin Hoyer, Maureen Freedland, and Sharon Hampson. With the exception of Hoyer, all were on record at the hearing as saying that “the permit should not be reissued.”

“I’m just one person, but dammit, I’m going to speak up and I’m going to do my part to address this situation at the county level,” Supervisor Sharon Hampson said. “I want the DNR to do their job to control this out-of-control situation. Scott Walker isn’t Governor anymore, and we have a new Governor now who is concerned.”