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2-mile-long manure spill reaches trout stream in Grant County
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2-mile-long manure spill reaches trout stream in Grant County

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State and local authorities were overseeing cleanup of manure that spilled from a dairy farm near Fennimore in Grant County and flowed 2 miles to a trout stream on Thursday.

It wasn’t clear how much manure was released or if there was serious damage to wildlife, but neighbors said they were advised to drink bottled water and test their wells.

The farm, Misty Morning Dairy, 3679 Wood Road, obtained a state permit to expand as a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation with more than 1,700 animals in 2014, just a year after the state was forced to hire a hauler to empty the farm’s 1-million-gallon manure pit to avoid a spill.

Around 7 a.m. Thursday, the owner notified the state Department of Natural Resources that a hose coupling had failed sometime during the night, agency spokesman George Althoff said.

The owner shut down the pump, but by then the stream of waste had been flowing for hours. Crews set up berms to capture the spill, but some reached Castle Rock Creek, Althoff said.

The manure entered a section of Castle Rock Creek that is a Class III trout stream, which means trout must be stocked annually. A few miles downstream, it is listed as Class II because trout sometimes reproduce naturally. Creek water quality and fish habitat have been degraded by sediment and nutrients running off surrounding land.

No fish kills were reported Thursday, but the agency will continue to monitor the creek, Althoff said.

Grant County Health Department director Jeffery Kindrai said it’s possible the ground is frozen sufficiently to keep contamination from reaching well intakes for the time being.

Randy Mouw, who owns Misty Morning Dairy, said Friday the farm is working with the DNR to ensure the spill is "completely contained and cleaned up."

"We have also reached out to our neighbors to explain what happened and help them in any way we can,” he said in a statement.

Wood Road resident Chuck Horn said he saw the spill around 7:30 a.m. when he went outside to check the bird feeder in front of his house. A stream of manure roughly 7 inches deep and 18 inches wide was moving over snow and ice that covered a spring flow in his yard, he said.

The spring empties into the creek, which is also known as the Fennimore Branch of the Blue River. The best trout fishing is a few miles downstream, Horn said.

He said he had a strong reaction to seeing where the manure was heading. “You can’t print it in the paper,” Horn said. “Just say I was disappointed, and I kind of had an inkling where it was coming from.”

Horn said he tracked the manure back about a quarter-mile to its source. A 4-foot-wide stream ran over the snow for about 100 yards from the area where the farm’s manure pits are located to the road, Horn said.

In Wisconsin, large quantities of manure have become more concentrated geographically with the growth of huge, automated “factory farms.”

Farmers are allowed to spread manure on fields as fertilizer when the ground can absorb it. When the soil is frozen, manure too easily runs off into lakes and rivers, destroying wildlife habitat and worsening unnatural growths of weeds and algae.

So millions of gallons are pumped through pipes into lagoons or tanks, and the storage systems sometimes fail.

In 2013, the DNR recorded two spills of 300,000 gallons in Dane County. They were among the four largest manure spills of the previous 15 years. One was at a manure biodigester near Waunakee, and the other was at UW-Madison’s Arlington Agricultural Research Station.

In both cases, pipes or couplings failed at night and went unnoticed for hours.

It’s possible to install safeguards such as containment berms and leak sensors that trip shutoff valves, but those can be costly. The DNR usually relies on private engineers hired by farm owners to design proper storage facilities. The agency reviews plans before a project is permitted.

In March 2013, the owner of Misty Morning Dairy called the DNR to ask for help in preventing a 1-million-gallon manure pit from overflowing, according to a DNR environmental cleanup report.

The farm was filing for bankruptcy and could not pay haulers to empty the storage pit, so the DNR hired a private waste hauler for $50,000, the report states.

Ten months later, the DNR reissued Misty Morning’s permit for pollution discharges as a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, allowing the business to expand. The owners said they had 1,340 animals in 2013, and projected the number to increase to 1,719 in 2014.

Althoff said he wasn’t familiar with details of the $50,000 expenditure or the permit allowing the farm to grow. 

Under Wisconsin law, CAFOs are supposed to be regulated more closely than smaller farms because of their potential to pollute.

The DNR issues general permits for dairy CAFOs with 1,000 to 5,720 animal units. More scrutiny is given to individual permit applications, which are required for those with more dairy animals or with more than 1,000 non-dairy animals.

[Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was first published to include a comment from Randy Mouw, the owner of Misty Morning Dairy. Mouw did not respond to phone messages seeking comment on Thursday but did release a statement about the incident on Friday.]

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.

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