Plan would give large dairy farms more power in drafting of pollution permits

  • A day after announcing plans to streamline water quality regulation, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources emphatically denied that it will allow large dairy producers to write their own pollution permits.

    But DNR leaders do want animal feedlot operators to take more responsibility for drafting pollution discharge permits, the legal documents that spell out standards and techniques aimed at keeping millions of gallons of manure they produce annually out of the state’s lakes, streams and drinking water.

    Conservationists say the change is loaded with pitfalls that threaten water quality, while industry representatives say it doesn’t go far enough.

    A key to their arguments is something that hasn’t been highlighted: Much of what goes into the permits under current practices is already written by the industry, subject to DNR oversight.

    The DNR wants to start a program under which it would review the credentials of the private consultants who are hired by large dairies to write lengthy proposals that eventually form the basis for the permit, then create a list of those the DNR and the dairy operators can be “assured” would do good work that could be approved quickly with less review and revision.

    A Dairy Business Association representative praised the DNR plan to give more cursory review to proposals from approved consultants but added that it would be a relatively small additional step to what the industry sees as an even better arrangement involving concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) writing the whole permit.

    That would speed permitting and create more efficiently designed CAFOs by giving the consultants who are experts in their fields greater control, while still allowing DNR the last word, association lobbyist John Holevoet said.

    It’s important to remember that the consultants can’t risk doing poor work that would make their insurance premiums go up, Holevoet said.

    “Sometimes the public thinks they’ll just do whatever the farmer wants,” he said. “That’s not true because they have to have fairly expensive insurance policies, and if something goes wrong the farmer will sue the engineering firm and the insurance company will pay out.”

    But conservationists pointed to problems that have surfaced even with the existing level of DNR scrutiny.

    With DNR staff stretched thin and under pressure to issue permits quickly, the agency has approved CAFOs whose manure lagoons have overflowed into trout streams and where animal waste was spread on farm fields with thin soil and porous bedrock that allowed drinking water to be tainted, said Sarah Geers of Midwest Environmental Advocates.

    “It would be one thing if the process were already working really well, but from what we know about the CAFO program I don’t see how less DNR review will result in better permits,” Geers said.

    ‘Assured’ consultants

    DNR secretary Cathy Stepp announced plans to change water permitting as part of a broad reorganization aimed at recognizing that the agency’s responsibilities have grown in recent years at the same time that elected officials have cut its staff.

    Stepp said she wants to reduce time staff members spend reviewing and seeking revisions in permit applications so they can talk with CAFO operators about best practices and conduct inspections to ensure they are complying with their permits.

    Critics say inspections won’t mean much if the DNR isn’t ensuring that the standards written into permits are adequate. Revising a faulty permit is a legal process that takes many months.

    But Stepp said a similar “assurance program” reduced staff responsibilities without lowering standards about 10 years ago when the DNR used it to give the private sector more responsibility for mapping sensitive wetlands.

    “So this isn’t about producers writing their own permit, it’s not about them writing their own regulations or standards,” Stepp said in a recent Wisconsin Public Television interview. “This is just about some of the more heavy-duty technical paperwork side of things getting done by professionals who are very well educated and credentialed to do that.”

    Water pollution discharge permits include operating conditions. Some, such as required ground water monitoring or leak detection devices in production areas, may be taken from the plans and specifications submitted by the CAFO.

    But the bulk of the permit document is hundreds or even thousands of pages describing how, where and under what conditions the CAFO will dispose of manure it produces. The so-called “nutrient management plan” is incorporated into the permit.

    The DNR said the best case is that a CAFO submits spotless plans that don’t require the department to request additional information or revisions.

    But conservationists who have challenged DNR-approved permits say the agency too often allows CAFOs to operate with inadequate permit restrictions.

    A recent state audit found the DNR lacked staff to adequately run its CAFO permit program, and agricultural pollution has fouled hundreds of lakes, streams and sources of drinking water.

    State oversight of the waste water discharge permits have become a hot topic as regulatory shortcomings have come to light.