This week, Wisconsin’s Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a key environmental case. The Court’s decision will likely have an impact on the ability of the Department of Natural Resources to protect drinking water from agricultural pollution.
The case began almost a decade ago when Kinnard Farms, a concentrated animal feeding operation in Kewaunee County, received a permit to expand. Neighbors of the farm, represented by Midwest Environmental Advocates, filed a legal challenge. They asked DNR for modest permit conditions to protect their water.
At the time the case was filed, Kewaunee County was the epicenter of Wisconsin’s drinking water crisis. Kewaunee County Land and Conservation Department records showed that 50% of private wells nearby were unsafe to drink from, either because they tested positive for total coliform bacteria or because they exceed groundwater quality standards for nitrates.
In 2014, an administrative law judge found that Kewaunee County’s drinking water crisis had been caused by “massive regulatory failure,” and he agreed with the farm’s neighbors that modest permit conditions like a requirement for groundwater monitoring were necessary.
Unfortunately, special interest groups and Republicans in the Legislature have joined the farm in fighting these modest clean water protections every step of the way. In doing so, they are advancing arguments that would significantly weaken DNR’s authority to protect clean water and public health across Wisconsin.
If the Court accepts the arguments made by industry groups in this case, communities across the state would be vulnerable to the same kind of regulatory failure that led Kewaunee County's drinking water crisis. Although legal disputes about the authority of DNR may seem academic, neighbors of Kinnard Farms know firsthand that the outcome of these cases should be of concern for all of us who care about public health and clean water.
Tony Wilken Gibart