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County moves to oust troubled manure digester operator

County moves to oust troubled manure digester operator

Dane County officials are pressing the operators of a troubled taxpayer-funded manure digester north of Waunakee for not meeting pollution reduction goals, and is threatening to pursue monetary damages or find a new entity to run the facility.

It’s the latest chapter in what was pitched by boosters as a showcase for safely handling animal waste from large dairy farms and reducing weed growth in the Yahara chain of lakes.

Boosted by a $3.3 million state grant, the Dane County Manure Handling Facility project opened in 2010 and has been fraught with problems, including an explosion in August that literally blew the lid off one of three 1.25 million gallon methane digesters. The facility is also facing alleged permit violations from the Department of Natural Resources along with citations from OSHA over its handling of that explosion and fire.

Milwaukee-based Clear Horizons — which has a 15-year contract to operate the county-owned facility — maintains it is making progress and working hard to address the problems.

But the county is now accusing Clear Horizons of violating the terms of its lease, including not removing enough phosphorus from the waste. It was supposed to capture 60 percent of the phosphorus but has fallen short of that target.

Phosphorus is the suspected cause of excess weed growth in Madison lakes. There are many other manure digesters operating producing electricity but Dane County’s was the first facility in Wisconsin to attempt to address water quality issues.

A new report in The Milkweed details the dispute between Dane County and Clear Horizons. The Madison-based dairy marketing monthly obtained correspondence between county assistant attorney Carlos Pabellon and company lawyer David Crass.

In a Feb. 20 letter, Pabellon accuses Clear Horizons of being in default of the terms of its lease and gives the firm 30 days to comply with the DNR requirements. The county says if Clear Horizons does not bring the operation up to standards, it would move to bring action to enforce the terms of the lease, seek damages and take possession of the county equipment which includes a device for removing phosphorus.

Clear Horizons has argued it is not in default on its lease since the DNR violations are still being contested. Attorney Crass in an interview added that the company is doing all it can to address any problems.

“We believe we have turned the corner and have things on the right track,” said Crass.

County officials said they realize the operator was trying to address the problems but said if Clear Horizons is unable to hit pollution reduction targets it might be time to part ways.

"It will be up to Clear Horizons to ultimately determine who owns/operates the facility moving forward," chief of staff Joshua Westcott wrote in an email. "We’ve very clearly impressed upon them our belief that digester technology works, is an important component to cleaning up our lakes and getting the right operator will help make needed improvements while restoring public confidence."

The story in The Milkweed regarding the dispute between Dane County and Clear Horizons follows a stinging report in the paper earlier this year that the facility has been nothing short of a financial and environmental disaster.

"Dane County liberals got suckered into spending millions of taxpayer dollars for this grandiose project that promised to reduce agricultural runoff pollution of area water while accommodating the expansion of dairy production within the county's borders. What taxpayers got was embarrassment, frustration and maybe a lot worse," charged dairy industry veteran Jim Eichstadt in the January issue.

County Executive Joe Parisi has defended the project, acknowledging there have been problems but saying the effort is worth the cost if it helps address contaminated runoff into area water from livestock operations.

The county digester has been hit by three highly publicized manure spills and a series of environmental violations.

In November, the state Department of Natural Resources referred the case to the Department of Justice for enforcement action. The facility was cited for spills totaling 400,000 gallons of manure, failing to remove enough phosphorus from the animal waste before it was spread on fields and violating monitoring requirements.

Dane County received $6.6 million from the state in 2010 to build two digesters and is funding a second facility outside of Middleton. Done in conjunction with Gundersen Health Systems, the county maintains that digester is using better technology that will remove more phosphorus from the waste stream.

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