TOWN OF ADAMS — A Wisconsin company that stores up to 2.8 million gallons of industrial waste water in open tanks is under fire from rural neighbors who say the smell sometimes gets bad enough to make them sick.
“And when the wind is going the other way so you can’t smell it, it’s like ‘Hallelujah,’ we’re going to have a good day,” said Pam Scheider, who lives near the tanks. “But that just means somebody else isn’t having a good day, because it will be blowing on them.”
Scheider and others say they have been rebuffed repeatedly when they have asked state and local government officials to investigate how such powerful odors could come from tanks that are supposed to hold only “wash water” from food-processing plants.
“They treat us like an enemy,” said Martha Ladwig.
She and her husband moved to Green County to raise children in fresh air, but she said in recent years they have been forced to keep their windows shut and their six boys indoors on summer days when the “nauseating” smell is at its worst.
Company president Stephan Byrne said in a statement that Monroe-based Bytec takes seriously its obligation to be a good neighbor, and it follows strict state Department of Natural Resources standards.
Bytec’s DNR permit allows them to store a variety of liquid industrial waste products in three tanks at the town of Adams site and four more elsewhere in Green, Richland and Iowa counties.
Bytec trucks pick up waste water from food-processing companies and deliver it to the town of Adams tanks. It is then pumped into other trucks and carried to farm fields where it is spread as fertilizer.
Bytec pollution violations prompted state lawsuits that resulted in Green County courts ordering Bytec to pay $5,154 in 2006 and $10,000 in 2010.
Settlement terms haven’t been disclosed from a 2013 lawsuit filed by a Lafayette County woman who claimed health problems including a vocal cord disorder from fumes after the company spread waste next to her home.
The DNR disclosed Friday that since 2012 it has issued three notices of noncompliance to Bytec for failing to report a spill and improper waste spreading. A 2016 violation notice was issued for a spill near Shullsburg. The department didn’t provide details.
Clients in ‘nonfood industries’
The company has emphasized that its town of Adams site handles “wash waters from cheese plant(s) and other food-processing operations.”
Using waste water from cheesemaking to fertilize fields has been going on for decades, and many rural residents had become as accustomed to the material’s mild smell as they were to the odor of manure from small dairy farms.
But the Green County residents complaining about Bytec say its liquid waste smells much worse, and they wonder what may be in it.
Cheesemakers have found markets for just about all the whey they can filter out of their waste water, selling it to manufacturers of products such as protein bars, said UW-Madison soil science professor Francisco Arriaga.
“It’s a very different type of waste water than it was 10 or 15 years ago,” Arriaga said. “Now it’s just wash water with detergents, or it could include other ingredients such as flavorings.”
Most large cheesemakers have land for disposing of their own waste water, he said.
Bytec’s permit lists a variety of other materials that it collects from industrial sources. The permit allows spreading of sludge from meat processing and waste water from animal food manufacturing as well as byproducts from processing of corn, cheese and other dairy products.
When the DNR in 2014 approved a new 1.5 million gallon tank in the town of Adams, Bytec’s management plan included new client categories in “nonfood industries” that include bio-fuel waste water, ethanol production, “animal kill operations” and “unknowns.”
A DNR spokesman didn’t respond to a request for specifics about Bytec tanks holding those materials.
When organic matter rots, it can release ammonia and hydrogen sulfide gases that smell bad and cause eye and respiratory irritation and other symptoms including headaches, dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath and loss of sleep, according to state and federal regulatory agencies.
Residents testified about Bytec odors at a July 2016 county Board of Adjustments meeting and asked the county to enforce an ordinance that prohibits conditions that are “noxious or seriously offensive to the health, safety or general welfare of the public.”
Green County zoning administrator Adam Wiegel responded in a memorandum saying that Bytec’s waste wasn’t a health hazard and concerns about odors should be forwarded to the DNR.
After residents met with DNR officials, the agency sent them a memo saying they should keep logs to document odors and submit them to the DNR. The company samples its waste for substances that commonly pollute water, including nitrogen, chloride, phosphorus, ammonia and potassium, the DNR’s Stephen Warrner said in a reply to two of them, Jim and Sue Weber.
Jim Weber, a retired real estate agent who lives in Fitchburg, bought a house and land in Green County near the Bytec site, but he said he can’t stand to spend much time there because when the smell gets bad it makes his throat burn.
“Sometimes it smells like rotten eggs or rotten milk,” Weber said.
Weber, Scheider and Ladwig are among the residents who filed a lawsuit this year asking a Green County judge to stop Bytec’s plans to build a new 1.3 million gallon tank to replace two older ones in the town of Adams. The suit also calls for Bytec to “abate the nuisance and empty the current tanks” and to pay unspecified damages.
“It woke us up in the middle of the night,” said Ladwig, who lives less than mile to the northeast of the facility. “It’s horrendous. I don’t even hang out clothes anymore. I’ve hung out clothes everywhere I’ve lived all my life, but it stinks too much here.”
Pam Scheider’s husband, Jim, said the fumes twice have left him dizzy, weak and unable to milk his 44 cows.
“The wind starts blowing into the barn and next thing I get this headache pressure ... and I was on my back,” Scheider said. “I can’t think of anything to compare the smell to. I use two words: nasty and rancid.”
Bytec president Byrne said he didn’t want to discuss pending litigation, but he said the company is in compliance with its DNR permit.
“Odor issues may exist from either the storage location or field application locations,” Byrne said in a 2016 letter to county officials. “When these issues are prevalent we may use odor mitigating responses or odor eliminating responses.”
Byrne didn’t respond to a State Journal request to describe steps taken to reduce odors.
Kriss Marion, a Blanchardville farmer and member of the Lafayette County Board, said she has been hearing complaints for years about companies that haul and spread dairy waste.
Because the liquid’s ingredients can vary and the way it affects crops can be unpredictable, many farmers have stopped accepting it, even though the haulers pay to deposit the material on fields, Marion said.
“It pays good money to get waste out of the cities and we are kind of a dumping ground for that,” Marion said.
Bytec says it has had a 300,000 gallon tank and 1 million gallon tank on the town of Adams site since the late 1990s, and it added a third tank, which can hold 1.5 million gallons, late in 2013.
Handling of waste water must be permitted under the Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System to ensure compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. But when the DNR provided the Wisconsin State Journal with a copy of Bytec’s January 2013 permit last week, it didn’t include any information on the 1.5 million gallon tank.
Jim Dick, DNR spokesman, said the permit allows changes to be made to it without the changes being noted in the document itself.
Asked for documentation that the DNR had approved the new tank, Dick provided a March 2014 DNR memo approving construction specifications and 46 pages of management plan changes submitted by Bytec and initialed as “approved” by a DNR employee in May 2014.
Dick didn’t respond when asked to comment on the company’s statement that the tank was built in 2013, before it was approved.
He said additional permit changes have been made since 2014, but documents wouldn’t be available until Monday.
Sarah Geers, an attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates, said she hadn’t seen many permits amended without changes being incorporated into the official document. Uncertainty about what is permitted can lead to ambiguity about whether a company is in compliance with the federal Clean Water Act, Geers said.
Companies can use their permits as “shields” if they are accused of violating the federal law, Geers said.