Second in a three-part series
As the number of factory farms has grown in Wisconsin, so has the power of the Dairy Business Association, a lobbying group that has gained unprecedented influence over the permitting and regulation of the giant farms — in some cases, crafting the law itself.
Correspondence and memos obtained through the state’s open records law show the association is heavily involved not only in shaping policy but also has intervened in the state’s handling of individual permit applications.
The DBA is the most powerful advocate on behalf of the state’s biggest dairies, those with 700 or more cows, requiring them to get pollution permits from the state Department of Natural Resources. Each of the farms produces millions of gallons of liquid manure that is stored in large lagoons and spread on fields. In some cases, waste has run into nearby streams or polluted nearby wells.
Despite the volume of waste, an investigation by the Wisconsin State Journal found inspections by the DNR have been spotty, with some farms being checked only once during the five-year life of their permit.
At the same time, the State Journal found, the DBA has pressured the agency heavily to streamline permitting and further ease oversight. For example, it was largely the DBA that engineered a little-publicized change in the DNR’s handling of factory farm permits in March 2008.
Speeding up the state review
According to a March 24, 2008, memo from DBA Executive Director Laurie Fischer to DNR Deputy Secretary Patrick Henderson, the agreement prompted the agency to speed up its processing of permit applications and even agree to issue approvals for farm building plans automatically if they aren’t approved in a certain amount of time. Fischer noted such automatic approvals are authorized in the law and said the DBA was simply pushing the agency to follow the practice.
Last May, the DNR signed an agreement with the lobbying group in which the agency agreed to pursue a number of substantial changes in the regulation of factory farms, changes that some say weaken oversight. Those include the creation of a “general” permit, which would streamline and expedite permitting of the farms, and the sharing of some regulatory reviews between the DNR and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection — a practice criticized by some because of DATCP’s role as an advocate for farming in the state. The DNR retains the authority to give final approval to farm plans.
The close involvement of the DBA in regulatory matters is representative of changes at an agency that has become increasingly politicized over the last several years, said former DNR Secretary George Meyer, who now is executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
Meyer said it is not unusual for the agency to adjust permitting practices with input from both the public and industry but added that “in recent years the agency has become rather one-sided in consulting with industry on such permits.”
Helping farms navigate rules
Fischer defended the DBA’s close relationship with DNR regulators, saying the regulations for large farms are so complicated that groups such as hers are necessary to help farmers work through the bureaucracy.
“Why are we at the table?” Fischer asked. “It’s because we have so many regulations. It is important for us to be at the table. What we can do is bring the farmer and the agency together.”
Jerry Meissner, DBA president and owner of a 2,000-cow dairy near Marshfield, said the organization and DNR officials meet regularly. He said it isn’t unusual for DNR Secretary Matthew Frank to attend the meetings.
“That’s no different than him dealing with other agencies,” said Meissner. “He’s brought a lot of credibility back to the DNR. … Our sitting down with the regulators is totally appropriate.”
Opponents of the big farms argue that the DBA has much more access to regulatory agencies than smaller and less well-funded groups.
“We don’t think that a corporate-based organization has any business meddling with our state agencies,” said Edie Ehlert, who heads the Crawford Stewardship Project of Crawford County, which is campaigning for more strict oversight of the large farms. “It’s the people who are supposed to be represented by our agencies, not large corporate interests.”
Among the companies the DBA lists as paying sponsors for its lobbying work are numerous large agri-businesses including Pfizer Animal Health Group, Wick Buildings, Arm and Hammer Animal Nutrition, Cargill Animal Nutrition and Eli Lilly & Co.
Bruce Baker, deputy administrator of the DNR’s Division of Water, said he was sometimes uncomfortable with DBA’s demands.
“They were asking for things that were just totally not appropriate for us to be negotiating as the regulatory agency,” Baker said.
‘We wrote the law’
Baker compared the DNR’s dealings with DBA to negotiations with paper companies years ago or to more recent cooperative efforts with cranberry growers on regulating their industries. The agency, for example, signed a document called a “cooperative agreement” with cranberry growers in 1982 to deal with regulatory compliance and other issues.
In an e-mail on February 19, 2009, Baker said sharing regulatory reviews with DATCP, which had been suggested by DBA, is not “an appropriate detail for the agencies to be negotiating with outside organizations.”
After signing the agreement with the DBA last March, which included a proposal for the general permit, the agency made it a priority to write the rules to implement the new class of permit. Over subsequent months, drafts of the rules bounced back and forth between the DBA and DNR, giving the group a direct hand in its authorship, records show.
Todd Ambs, who heads the DNR’s Division of Water, said the work on the general permit was not done entirely at DBA’s behest. DNR staff also pushed for general permits, he said, which are authorized under the law that regulates the large farms.
The DBA was also deeply involved with DATCP in writing the factory farm siting law, which has come under fire for encouraging construction of the big farms and limiting the power of local governments to influence the projects. In a column written for the association’s September newsletter, David Crass, a lawyer who frequently represents the lobbying group and owners of large farms, encouraged DBA members to send the association questions about the siting law.
“After all,” Crass noted, “we wrote the law and are in the best position to tell you what it means.”
Former regulator, now advocate
The closeness of the ties between DBA and the agencies that regulate the industry was further underscored when the lobbying group announced on Feb. 12 that it had hired David Jelinski — who helped write and implement the siting law as director of DATCP’s Land and Water Resources Bureau — as its government affairs director.
Baker attributed some of DBA’s heavy-handed approach to inexperience in dealing with a regulatory agency. “The thing it showed me,” Baker said, “was that as an industry group, they had a lot to learn about the role of a regulatory agency. … I was surprised by the DBA’s lack of understanding or its inexperience in knowing where you draw the line in what you are asking for.”
Others who monitor factory farms say the close relationship between the DBA and the DNR raises questions about the regulatory agency’s independence.
Jamie Saul, a lawyer with Midwest Environmental Advocates, said he is particularly disturbed by the formal agreement the agency signed with DBA with little public notice.
“I think for me it symbolizes what really is the core issue here,” said Saul. “And that is that this particular lobbying group has been able to elbow its way into the higher levels of the regulatory agency. That kind of access is unprecedented.”
To learn more about the Dairy Business Association, go to its web site.
For research on the impact of factory farms, go to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
For information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on factory farms.