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First in a three-part series

Wisconsin is churning out permits for industrial-scale farms to spread millions of gallons of manure on state fields but provides little oversight after that, inspecting them only once or twice every five years, a Wisconsin State Journal investigation has found.

At stake is the health of thousands of homeowners who draw their drinking water from wells near the giant farms or the fields where the manure is spread.

By the end of this year, Wisconsin will have permitted close to 200 of the megafarms to open or expand. In the seven years the state Department of Natural Resources has been in charge of overseeing the operations, no permit request has been turned down, while neighboring states, including Illinois and Michigan, have refused some permits because of threats to water quality. Nor have any Wisconsin permits been revoked even after repeated rule violations.

"The push is always to write permits, write permits," said Mike Vollrath, a former large farm inspector with the DNR who now works in the agency's drinking water section.

The large farms have been a driving force behind the growth in the state's dairy sector, which now adds $26.5 billion a year to the state's economy, and have received strong support from Gov. Jim Doyle and the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Advocates also credit the farms with giving us cheap milk while boosting jobs and keeping families in the dairy business.

But a review of the state's oversight of the huge farms turned up weaknesses and missteps, including farms operating without permits, a dearth of on-site inspections and a monitoring system that consists largely of inspectors filling out paperwork at their desks. The State Journal's investigation focused on the agency's regulation of so-called factory farms, operations that house at least 700 dairy cows, for example, or 2,500 pigs. The farms are officially known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

Despite the flaws uncovered by the newspaper, the DNR is considering making the permits easier to obtain and requiring even less scrutiny of many factory farms. The effort to streamline the process by having the DNR issue so-called "general" permits comes at least partly in response to pressure from the Dairy Business Association, an agri-business lobby that has unprecedented influence within the regulatory agency.

Todd Ambs, who heads the DNR's Division of Water, said the permitted farms are the most heavily regulated farms in the state. But he said the regulation is a "work in progress," largely because the size of the agency's inspection staff has not kept pace with the growth of the large farms.

"We have roughly the same number of people doing permits as we did 15 years ago," said Ambs. "It's simple math."

Ambs said the agency's goal is to inspect the large farms at least once during the five-year life of the permit - generally when the farm's permit is issued or renewed - but added that "we haven't done as well as we would like to."

Records show the DNR carried out full inspections on 19 farms in 2009, all conducted as part of the farms' initial permit. No other on-site inspections were recorded that year, or in four of the preceding five years. In 2006, the records show, one farm was inspected outside the initial permitting process.

Gordon Stevenson, chief of the DNR's runoff management section, said there may be times when inspectors don't even make it out to a farm for an initial permit inspection. In other cases, inspections may have been done but not recorded.

"I can say candidly that all that information is not duly recorded in the files," Stevenson said.

Big operation, big risk

The number of large permitted dairy farms in Wisconsin has grown rapidly in the past 15 years, from eight in 1995 to 154 by the end of 2009. Currently, the DNR has nearly 42 pending permit applications.

Chief among the requirements in those permits is the safe handling and disposal of manure, which is produced by the farms in amounts that are difficult to comprehend. One cow can produce as much waste as 18 people. Multiply that by 3,000 or 4,000 cows and you have farms that produce as much waste as some small cities produce in sewage.

But unlike cities, which treat their waste, most of the large farms dispose of manure the same way farmers disposed of it in the Middle Ages - by spreading it on fields as fertilizer. Only about 25 of the large farms use digesters or treatment systems.

Still, so great is the volume of manure that many factory farms do not own enough nearby land to adequately dispose of the waste and instead must haul it to distant fields owned by other farmers. Though farms are required to submit detailed spreading plans before receiving a permit, the plans deal mostly with the nutrient needs of a crop.

Laurie Fischer, executive director of the Dairy Business Association, said the manure is an important source of fertilizer and reduces the need to use petroleum-based chemical fertilizers.

But in recent years, livestock manure from farms has become one of the most frequently found contaminants in rural wells. While smaller farms also spread manure on fields, the great volumes of waste produced by factory farms pose a growing threat to surface waters and private wells, conservationists say.

"My position is big operation, big potential" for harm, said Bill Hafs, a county conservationist in Brown County, which has one of the largest concentrations of factory farms in the state.

Tap water ran brown

That potential has sometimes been realized. It was in Brown County that more than 100 private wells were contaminated by spring runoff in 2006. Hafs, who helped investigate the incident, said some people fell ill with stomach cramps, nausea, diarrhea and chills. Though no single farm was found responsible, a DNR investigation did turn up a break in a manure-spreading pipe at a nearby factory farm.

Other incidents of well contamination have been directly linked to factory farms. In March 2004 in Kewaunee County, Judy Treml turned on her tap and out flowed brown water that smelled like manure. The family stopped using the water but the damage had already been done: Samantha, Treml's 6-month-old daughter, became violently ill with vomiting and diarrhea and had to be rushed to the emergency room.

The Tremls' well had been contaminated after tens of thousands of gallons of manure was spread on nearby frozen fields by Stahl Farms. The DNR insisted at the time that the spreading hadn't violated the farm's permit. The Wisconsin Department of Justice eventually fined the farm $50,000 for spreading illegally. The farm also paid the Tremls $80,000 in civil damages.

That incident also prompted changes in manure spreading laws. It is now illegal to spread liquid manure when the ground is frozen or snow-covered. Factory farms are also required to maintain lagoons capable of holding at least six months' worth of manure.

Even so, problems continue to surface. In 2006, the Nehls Brothers farm in Dodge County was ordered to pay more than $42,000 to reimburse three private well owners whose water was contaminated by manure spread by the farm. And enforcement records show several permit violations by factory farms late last year. Among those cited in recent months was Stahl Farms, the same farm involved in the Treml case.

Farmer: I drink the water, too

Farmer A.V. Roth, who has applied for a permit from the DNR to expand his Crawford County pig farm to more than 2,500 pigs, said he's doing everything he can, including ensuring adequate manure storage and following a spreading plan, to avoid contaminating groundwater or the nearby lower Wisconsin River - DNR or no DNR.

"Why would I pollute the water in this area?" Roth asked. "There have been five generations on this farm. I plan on passing it on to my daughter. She's going to be here. I won't let this farm pollute the water. It's just plain and simple. It's ridiculous to even think I would let that happen."

Few disagree that there is a real threat posed by the large farms to the environment and to water supplies. "These are not zero-risk permits," said Tom Bauman, a runoff management engineer with the DNR.

Even the rule the DNR uses to regulate the operations acknowledges that the large farms will pollute and that manure runoff "will reach waters of the state."

Yet that threat does not always translate into heightened vigilance at the DNR.

In 2000, when factory farm permit applications started to climb, the DNR had four full-time employees and one part-timer working out of the agency's central office in Madison, assisted by seven regional employees, working on permits and inspections. Today, with more than four times the number of factory farms, the size of the central office staff is unchanged while the number of regional employees has grown to 10. Two of those regional positions are vacant, however, with no immediate plans to fill them, Ambs said.

Inspectors are also charged with keeping tabs on thousands of smaller farms, so they rely on operators to self-report permit violations.

Does that happen? Wastewater specialist Casey Jones said some operators will call to report broken pipes or overtopping manure storage lagoons. But the frequency of such reports is difficult to track because the source of complaints about the farms - whether from the farmer, a DNR inspector, or a member of the public - is not something that is regularly noted in agency records.

Is simpler permit the answer?

To pay for more inspectors, critics of the program say, the department should consider increasing the $345 fee the farms pay for their permits. Municipalities pay thousands of dollars for similar permits.

But Ambs said the most effective way to give inspectors more time in the field would be to have them spend less time on the initial permits. That's the idea behind the proposed general permit, a simpler permitting system for dairy farms with 4,000 or fewer cows. Under such a system, the state would not be required to conduct an environmental assessment and hold a public hearing if the farm meets certain requirements. Hearings on the proposal are scheduled for March and April.

A few of the state's largest farms, such as the 4,000-cow Rosendale Dairy near Ripon, have received more attention. Jim Ostrom, one of the Rosendale owners, said a DNR inspector was a frequent visitor while the farm was being built. The farm recently received approval to expand to 8,000 cows.

"In our case, I feel the DNR has been extremely thorough and extremely diligent," Ostrom said.

Ostrom said the large farms are necessary to provide food for a growing world population and said he doesn't believe the expansion threatens the environment. "We're designed, built and permitted with more scrutiny than any dairy this state has seen," he said. "It's a badge of honor when you get through it."

But Treml, whose daughter was sickened after the family's well was tainted by manure, still casts a wary eye at the millions of gallons of manure that continue to be spread on the land around her home. She's doubtful the DNR has learned from her nightmare and fears that, as the big farms have continued to grow, the agency is leaving families such as hers at risk.

"Have things gotten better?" Treml asked. "I don't see it. I don't think anything has changed."

For more information on the state's factory farms, also known as concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs, go to the state Department of Natural Resources Web site.

For background and UW-Madison research on manure and other issues related to factory farms.