Earlier this month, state officials announced they had settled 14 pollution complaints against a rural Marshall rendering company for a string of violations including illegally dumping animal renderings and untreated sewage on a Dane County field in 2010.
But while Bailey Farms was fined $27,500, it was never ordered to clean up the mess, state Department of Natural Resources documents show, even though the agency told prosecutors that removal of pollutants and groundwater monitoring were needed, and experts say the material posed a risk to human health.
In referring the matter to the state Department of Justice, DNR enforcement staff cited state law requiring testing and disposal of the waste in the pit, about two miles south of Bailey Farms near Missouri Road in the town of Medina.
A civil complaint filed by DOJ attorneys quoted the DNR warden who discovered the 30-by-30-yard pit saying it “emitted an extreme odor of decomposing
animal matter and was surrounded by numerous animal entrails and thousands of flies.”
Yet DNR records provided to the State Journal and interviews with DNR staff produced no evidence of efforts to evaluate and clean up the pit in the more than two years before department officials say their focus shifted to a more serious spill on company property in October 2012.
The settlement announced this month covers both the illegal dumping, the later spill and other complaints about improper and in some cases illegal spreading of waste on fields and failure to maintain required records.
As a result of the investigation, the company is paying $100,000 to clean up the 2012 spill and $55,000 annually to properly haul and dispose of wastewater and sewage at municipal treatment plants, said Pam Buss, the enforcement specialist on the case.
Buss said the fact that Bailey stopped dumping in the pit after about three months, potential for complications in gaining access to the property and limited staff resources all contributed to inaction on the dump site.
DNR spokesman Bill Cosh said the October 2012 discovery of the other spill, which leaked animal blood and tissue directly into the Maunesha River, constituted a more immediate environmental threat.
By comparison, Cosh said, the dumping pit near Missouri Road was hundreds of feet from the nearest stream.
Others said the illegal dump was a potential hazard.
“If they thought the pit was a problem before, then other issues don’t really mean that’s no longer a problem in its own right,” said Sarah Williams, an attorney for the Madison-based Midwest Environmental Advocates.
And Doug Voegeli, environmental health director for Public Health Madison and Dane County, said pathogens that typically breed in animal flesh — like salmonella, staphylococcus, listeria and e. coli — can be carried in groundwater to drinking wells, lakes and streams.
DNR wastewater engineer Fred Hegeman said the dump posed little to no public health risk because any disease-causing bacteria in the waste probably would have been filtered out by soil before it reached groundwater.
But Voegeli said that without testing samples from the pit or area wells, it’s far from certain viruses and bacteria didn’t reach the area’s relatively high water table.
“That organic soup that was being dumped down there would have been very rich with bacteria, and the bacteria will travel wherever the water goes,” Voegeli said.
Some of the pollutants cause serious and even fatal illnesses in children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems, Voegeli said.
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DNR reports and court documents describe how odor complaints from the public sparked an investigation.
DNR warden Tyler Strelow visited the site several times and secretly watched dumping. Bailey Farms employee Justo Dominguez told Strelow that starting in May 2010 about 40 tanker-truck loads were dumped in the pit on the land, then owned by the late businessman Lee Merrick of Marshall.
Bailey Farms registered agent Greg Sheil told Strelow the company paid a monthly fee for dumping rights.
A September 2011 DNR memorandum referring the case to DOJ for legal action twice called for testing and cleanup.
However, it also said, “Bailey Farms can’t be ordered to clean up property they don’t own or control. Lee Merrick recently passed away. It is unknown who is in control of the Merrick land.”
The document, revised in March 2012, was written by the enforcement specialist, Buss. Buss said she was advised by department lawyers and regulators. The memo was approved by the office of DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, Cosh said.
Cosh said Wednesday that questions about who owned the land prevented the department from seeking remediation because Merrick died on Aug. 5, 2011.
It’s not clear whether anyone with the DNR attempted to track down representatives of Merrick’s estate. By the end of August 2011, those representatives were identified in online and probate court records
State Department of Justice spokeswoman Dana Brueck said questions about why the case was settled without cleaning up the pit should be directed to the DNR.
“The more significant issues were addressed,” said Steve Sisbach, DNR law enforcement section chief.
“Generally speaking if there was a concern that posed a high risk, it would be more front and center.”
The dumping pit was about 500 feet from Spring Creek, a tributary of the Maunesha and part of the Rock River drainage basin, although maps and aerial photos show a ditch or intermittent stream running closer to the dump site and into the creek.
Aerial photos and computer modeling indicate the area occasionally floods and that groundwater is relatively high — about 10 to 15 feet below ground, said Mike Parsens, a hydrologist for the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey.
In addition to animal waste, DNR documents quote Bailey Farms employees saying they dumped material from septic tanks serving employee homes at the rendering plant because it cost less than proper disposal at a municipal treatment plant.
An attorney for the company, Buck Sweeney, said the rendering wastewater was dumped when weather prevented spreading on fields.
In the 2011 referral, before the spill into the Maunesha River was discovered, the DNR recommended the state Justice Department lawyers seek fines of $25,000 to $30,000 and estimated the company saved at least $12,500 based on how much the workers said they disposed of illegally.
During a 2013 conference with the DNR and DOJ, Bailey Farms representatives said that the state hadn’t been clear about the need to test and clean up pollution in the pit, something the DNR disputes.
Sometime in 2011 a Merrick employee filled the pit with straw, manure, rock and bricks, according to a DNR summary of the meeting.