by Henry Redman, Wisconsin Examiner
April 25, 2024

A group of Portage County residents filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and a large livestock facility, arguing the department should not have reached a settlement with the facility without taking public input. 

The lawsuit alleges that Gordondale Farms and the 12.5 million gallons of manure its more than 2,000 cows produce annually has adversely affected the water of the residents who brought the lawsuit. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit live or have lived near the Nelsonville farm’s properties and have seen elevated levels of nitrates in the water they get from their private drinking wells. The region’s sandy soil makes manure spreading especially harmful to local groundwater. 

According to the lawsuit, when the facility’s water pollution permit was up for renewal, the farm objected to the DNR’s terms, leading to a settlement agreement with the agency to establish new permit requirements. State law includes provisions that state the Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (WPDES) permit process must include a public comment period. 

“Under Wisconsin law, members of the public have a right to participate in permit decisions. These rights are essential for holding agricultural operations accountable to our environmental laws,” Adam Voskuil, an attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates who is representing the residents, said in a statement. “Shutting our clients out of the process not only deprives them of their rights, it also perpetuates the ongoing drinking water crisis in their community.” 

In 2017, the farm applied for a reissuance of its WPDES permit, asking for permission to grow from 2,160 animal units to 2,505 animal units. There was “significant public participation” in that reissuance decision, according to the lawsuit. In 2020 the permit was issued. A group of residents, including some involved in the current lawsuit, and the environmental group Clean Wisconsin contested that permit on the grounds that it didn’t do enough to monitor and protect local groundwater. 

In 2021 a settlement between those groups was reached which stated that if the state Supreme Court rules in a different case that the DNR has the authority to include groundwater provisions in WPDES permits, the DNR will require groundwater monitoring at the Gordondale sites. 

After the Supreme Court decided in that case that the DNR did have such authority, the agency issued a draft modification to the permit according to the terms of the settlement. That modification was open to public comment and, according to the lawsuit, about 75 comments were received. In 2022, the DNR issued the modified permit and included revisions responsive to the public comments. 

A month later, the farm contested that permit and over the following year, the farm and the DNR held private settlement negotiations over the groundwater monitoring provisions. The settlement was reached last September, with no public input on the permit’s new requirements. 

“Like other community members, I am disappointed that the DNR chose to engage in closed door negotiations,” one of the residents, Lisa Anderson, said. “Local residents and scientific experts have legitimate concerns about Gordondale’s impact on our drinking water, and we should have had a seat at the table too.” 

A spokesperson for the DNR said the agency could not comment on pending litigation. Gordondale Farms’ publicly available phone number has been disconnected.

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