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A dairy industry lobbyist says large farm operations are being scapegoated after reports of contaminated wells. 

A recently formed dairy lobbying group is pushing for a bill that would allow polluters to buy water pollution credits on a state-run clearinghouse.

The proposal, backed by the Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, was introduced with bipartisan support Wednesday in the state Senate. 

The Dairy Alliance announced the proposal last week, saying that the group is working with Republican legislative leaders to pass the bill and to write into the state budget a provision that would establish a task force to study sources of groundwater contamination.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos last month announced his intention to form a water quality task force after federal reports showed well contamination across southwestern Wisconsin. 

The proposal follows a provision in Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' budget that would add five positions to step up permitting, inspection and enforcement for the state's large livestock operations and increase their fees. Evers has proclaimed 2019 "the year of clean drinking water in Wisconsin.”

Laurie Fischer, the Dairy Alliance's lobbyist, said the efforts were on behalf of the state’s large dairy farms, which she said have been “scapegoated” over the state’s water pollution issues.

Fischer, who is also the CEO and founder of the American Dairy Coalition, made her statements to WisBusiness.com. She did not return message from the Cap Times for comment.

“There are some more, I would say, activist-type reporting that goes on, and (CAFOs) just want to respond,” Fischer told the publication. “They want to at least put in front of people another position, more information about what they’re doing, and then let individual readers make their own decisions.”

Pollution credits are already available in the state, but rarely used. They are available to facilities such as water treatment plants that need to exceed permitted discharge limits of toxic pollutants like phosphorous or nitrates, allowing them to pay entities, including farms, to reduce pollution in an equal amount in the same water basin. The polluting entity saves money because mitigation measures at facilities like sewage facilities might cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, while preventing runoff at farms can be done far more cheaply with measures like erecting berms.

But many municipal utilities, especially smaller ones, don’t have the resources or expertise to take advantage of the credits, said George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and a former state Department of Natural Resources secretary.

The bill being pushed by the Dairy Alliance would make it easier for utilities by posting pollution credits in a clearinghouse that could be bought directly, or arranged through a third party. The entity offering the credit would have to reduce discharges by 1.2 units for every 1 unit by which the credit purchaser exceeds its permitted amount, for a net reduction in pollution. 

“You actually get more reduction at a substantially lower price,” Meyer said. “I always supported this. I come from an economics background. This is a cost efficient way to reduce pollution, especially for small entities.”

But he said several details would have to be addressed, particularly the lack of clarity over whether the polluter and the entity offering the credit would be impacting the same water basin. That could lead to a net increase in pollution in one water body while causing an increase in another. 

“That needs to be clarified,” he said. “That’s an important point.”

Tressie Kamp, an attorney at Midwest Environmental Advocates, pointed to other concerns. She said some environmental groups are worried that the proposal doesn’t do enough to hold polluters accountable.

And some are concerned that the bill merely provides financial incentives for big dairy farms, particularly concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, to implement nutrient management plans to control manure runoff, which they are already required to do under state regulations.

“The argument on one side is that farms should already be doing this to protect water quality,” Kamp said.

Fischer told WisBusiness that large dairy farms are already at “zero discharge.”

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Meyer called that claim “deceptive.”

“I think they’re trying to convince people they are not causing pollution by saying that,” he said.

Large dairy farms don’t discharge directly in the lakes, rivers and streams, but runoff from manure-covered fields and leaching by waste storage facilities often finds ways into groundwater, he said.

Fischer, in the WisBusiness article, pointed to other sources of pollution and complained that CAFOs were being unfairly targeted for blame. She called for others, including golf courses and sewage systems, to be regulated to the same extent as CAFOs.

“Instead of singling some out and just putting more onerous regulations (on CAFOs) … this will help find avenues for everyone to participate,” she told the publication.

But in a recent report, U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist Mark Borchardt tied coliform and nitrates in Kewaunee County wells to agricultural operations. Kewaunee County has seen some of the state’s most rapid growth in dairy farming. The study follows one in 2017 in which Borchardt found over 60 percent of wells sampled in the county were contaminated with fecal microbes.

“This seems like an interesting approach to point fingers at other dischargers to deflect responsibility away from CAFOs,” said Cheryl Nenn of Milwaukee Riverkeeper, which monitors pollution in the Milwaukee River basin. “I would agree that all dischargers should also be required to ratchet down pollution so that we can clean up our impaired streams and ensure our waters are safe for drinking, swimming, and fishing. I think the answer is to not relax requirements on CAFOs but to bring other discharges up to a higher standard.”

As for the proposal for another task force, some environmentalists see it as a delay tactic.

“I hope we can fit the efforts of these different groups together and not put off recommendations and real action indefinitely,” said Kamp.

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.