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Environmental lawyer: CAFOs not just a NIMBY issue

Aerial view of a
Aaron - stock.adobe.com
Aerial view of a large scale dairy farm

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has a month to respond in court to a new lawsuit concerning a factory farm in the central part of the state.

Those leading the legal fight said the case speaks to how worried some communities are about concentrated animal feeding operations. The group Midwest Environmental Advocates represents Portage County residents in a lawsuit claiming the Department of Natural Resources reached an illegal settlement with a large livestock facility for a wastewater permit. At issue is whether the state should have allowed public input.

Adam Voskuil, staff attorney for the group, said as concentrated animal feeding operations gain a bigger footprint, data is becoming clear about the harm to local resources.

"We're seeing concerns over CAFOs in western Wisconsin, too, where there have been significant spills and fish kills," Voskuil reported.

He is referring to a 2019 incident where a settlement was reached with a large dairy operation over a manure discharge. For his clients, Voskuil pointed to 2018 county data showing elevated nitrate levels in private wells, saying it rises above the traditional "not-in-my-backyard" opposition.

The DNR would not comment on the lawsuit but some farm groups say large ag facilities have to adhere to strict regulations as they help feed the world.

Voskuil noted people who live near the sites are not regulators. They are individuals asking for responses to what they feel is a growing crisis.

"I really think that we need to stop just accepting that CAFOs can externalize the cost of environmental contamination onto the communities that live downstream or downwind," Voskuil stressed.

Wisconsin currently has nearly 340 concentrated animal feeding operations as consolidation in agriculture outmuscles smaller, independent farms. Even though the DNR is targeted in the new lawsuit, the agency was being defended by the state in a separate case for maintaining the permitting process for the projects. The suit was brought by industry groups who said they are being overregulated.

Mike Moen is a radio news reporter with nearly two decades of experience in the field. He has covered much of the upper Midwest, including Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and the Dakotas. Many of his stories have aired nationally, including several public radio programs.
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