LACROSSE - LaCrosse Public Health Director Jennifer Rombalski has confirmed that the DNR will schedule a public information hearing regarding the reissuance of the Babcock Genetics Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (WPDES) permit “sometime in March.”
NOTE: since we went to press with this story, the hearing about Babcock Genetics WPDES permit has been scheduled to take place on Thursday, March 14, starting at 10 a.m., at the Holland Town Hall, W7937 County Highway MH, Holmen.
Rombalski had written to the DNR employee, Ben Uvaas, who drafted the renewed permit to request such a hearing because the townships of Holmen and Onalaska in LaCrosse County have been dealing with a public health crisis due to unsafe levels of nitrates being found in local wells.
In the WDNR public notice of availability of a nutrient management plan and intent to reissue a WPDES permit for the large hog confined animal feeding operation, the following language is provided:
Persons wishing to comment on or object to the proposed permit action, the terms of a nutrient management plan, or the application, or to request a public information hearing may write to the Department of Natural Resources, Ben Uvaas, Oskhosh DNR Service Center, 625 E. County Road Y, Oshkosh, WI 54901. You can also e-mail Ben Uvaas at Benjamin.firstname.lastname@example.org, or call him at 920-303-5433.
Rombalski did just that, and so now concerned citizens will have a chance to hear what the DNR has to say in support of reissuing the permit. They will also have the chance to express ideas and concerns that will be taken into account in the permit reissuance process.
“It does seem to be kind of a watershed moment in the state in terms of citizen awareness of water quality issues,” Rombalski said. “I am heartened to see that citizens and elected leaders in the affected townships have jumped on board with this public health initiative. People are coming together around our common issues, we have good, transparent government processes, and those are both good things.”
One of the things Rombalski thinks could be discussed would be a reduction in the amount of manure that is spread in areas, where runoff of nutrients could travel into the Black River Watershed.
Babcock Genetics already monitors groundwater for nitrates around its animal facility and manure lagoons three times per year. The operation has about 11,000 hogs that produce about 11.3 million gallons of manure and wastewater per year. The manure is spread onto about 681 acres of nearby cropland.
The new permit that will be discussed at the meeting would call for adding groundwater-monitoring wells at its manure spray irrigation sites, with the company being asked to add five wells by the end of 2019 and commence water monitoring by 2020. The DNR is also recommending the company place a monitoring well upstream of its existing wells to pinpoint how much nitrate is in the groundwater as it enters their property.
Health Board to meet
In addition to requesting the public hearing, the LaCrosse County Board of Health will also take up the recommendations for policy changes and advocacy as set forth in a Nitrate Task Force Report that was released in October of 2018.
“My department’s focus is public health, and so far we have been acting on the recommendations contained in the report calling for public education,” Rombalski said. “At its February meeting, the LaCrosse County Board of Health will begin to discuss the policy changes and advocacy recommendations that were made in the report.”
The recommendations included actions for state, county and municipal governments, as well as for private citizens and private onsite wastewater treatment system owners. The report also laid out recommendations for increased regulation of animal agriculture and row crop growing in areas with sensitive groundwater resources.
History of situation
The Nitrate Task Force was convened after the health department reviewed the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau (WLAB) report ‘Wastewater Permitting and Enforcement: Department of Natural Resources,’ released in 2016. From that, they discovered that WDNR had been aware of elevated nitrate levels in monitoring wells around a confinement feeder pig operation in the county.
The operator, Babcock Genetics, had exceeded federal drinking water standards of 10 micrograms per milliliter (mg/L), beginning in 2005. The WDNR had never notified the county of this potential public health hazard.
This information only came out after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) intervened in 2016, in the wake of the discovery of well water contamination in Kewaunee County and a record of WDNR failing to enforce wastewater permit rules. Based on their review, the EPA questioned whether the State of Wisconsin was competent to administer provisions of the U.S. Clean Water Act (CWA).
The 2016 legislative re-port found that the WDNR, which is responsible for monitoring and enforcing permit rules for big live-stock operations, only is-sued violations in six per-cent of the cases in which its own pollution rules had been broken.
Vos task force
Rombalski reported she had reached out to Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos about the Water Quality Task Force he has promised to convene.
“I haven’t heard a lot of specifics yet about who will be on the Task Force or where they plan to hold meetings, but I did reach out to Speaker Vos to encourage him to include an individual with a background in public health,” Rombalski said. “I have heard informally that members are being selected for the task force and that someone with a public health background may be invited to participate, so that’s a good thing too.”