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Dairy cows

The DNR approved a CAFO waste water permit for Pinnacle dairy. Above, dairy cows are the subject on research related to their diet.

The Department of Natural Resources on Wednesday announced it has approved a permit for a controversial dairy feedlot that would generate an estimated 95 million gallons of manure and waste water annually in the Sugar River watershed about 40 miles south of Madison.

The Pinnacle Dairy feedlot will keep 5,800 cows on a 128-acre site in Green County, DNR wastewater engineer Mark Cain said in an email to people who had commented on the project.

Opponents have expressed concern that waste from the operation will harm drinking water and streams, and that the DNR doesn’t have enough staff members to enforce regulations.

People who submitted comments on the project had particular concerns about potential contamination of groundwater that has been found close to the surface on the Pinnacle site.

If this upper layer of groundwater is connected to the larger aquifer that lies deeper underground, it could provide an easy pathway for contaminants to reach the area’s drinking water supply.

Nebraska-based Pinnacle has maintained that that the upper layer of groundwater is “perched” — which means it isn’t connected to the larger aquifer.

The company has been trying to pump and remove the water close to the surface, and the DNR has said Pinnacle eventually will need to demonstrate that it has succeeded.

The DNR acknowledged in its written responses to public comments that there is disagreement about whether enough water has been removed to ensure that contamination from a spill wouldn’t reach the deeper aquifer.

“There is debate over whether or not Pinnacle Dairy has been able to demonstrate that they have properly dewatered the site,” the DNR said.

Pinnacle is required within 60 days after it completes construction to show that it has complied with approved plans, which include installation of wells to monitor groundwater quality, the DNR said.

Four wells are to be placed on the site perimeter and seven more around the manure pits to monitor water quality, the DNR said.

However, if water samples show elevated background levels of pollutants are already in groundwater, the state will consider granting exemptions to water quality standards after a public comment period, the DNR said.

Past record not a factor

The DNR responded to public comments highlighting reports of manure spills at other Pinnacle operations by saying the state doesn’t take a company’s pollution record into account when deciding on a permit for a new site. One of the previous spills remains under investigation, the department said.

Construction at the Green County site began last spring and is expected to continue through most of this year. Pinnacle has built a berm to prevent storm water from flowing onto the site, and to contain any spills, the DNR said.

The company is building three ponds for storage of manure, including one open pit lined with concrete and three covered pits lined with polyethylene, according to the public notice the DNR issued.

Pinnacle has told the DNR it has contracts that will allow disposal of manure and waste water on 6,692 acres of surrounding fields.

In comments submitted to the DNR, members of the public said the dairy’s waste posed the threat of fish kills and harm to stream restoration efforts. The dairy is close to a tributary of the Sugar River, and nearly half of the 30 planned manure spreading sites are near waterways including some fields that are prone to flooding.

But the DNR said Pinnacle’s plans include precautions required under state regulations to minimize pollution risk.

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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.