The impact of concentrated animal feeding operations, Emerald Sky Dairy and environmental justice issues in Emerald, Wisconsin
Kim Dupre describes herself as an average farm kid from Iowa. She understands rural life and admires the ways that it provides hopefulness among uncertainty. But Kim left her Emerald home of 20 years when other homeowners located near the town’s concentrated animal feeding operation (or CAFO) discovered their drinking water had been contaminated.
Kim understands the benefits of manure, and explains that working with the land to create comprehensive care has many benefits, but she said, "When you start treating your ground more like a dumping waste area as opposed to doing what you need to do to restore the soil, that is a big difference."
Kim is invested in environmental justice and spent her time in Emerald supporting her neighbors and fighting against CAFO's in her area. Although state and federal laws regulate CAFO's, they can still potentially contaminate the surface and groundwater. The waste that is produced by CAFO's is a much greater volume than any other family farm. When manure from CAFO's is over applied, it can't be absorbed by the land, which causes it to run off into groundwater sources.
That manure carries viruses, bacteria, oxygen-depleting nutrients, and other toxins.
Emerald is a rural residential area, meaning that it consists of mostly hobby farms or small-scale farming; it is not an agricultural district. But when Emerald Sky Dairy moved into town, things began to change. Town hall meetings were packed, and the township did not want Emerald Sky Dairy to come in because they were concerned about their water.
Rising nitrates and health consequences
At first, it was only 700 cows at a time. Emerald Sky Dairy wanted to use a biodigester to transfer the manure into natural gas and then pipe the natural gas to a pipeline in Baldwin. "They had huge plans for green technology, which isn't a bad thing, especially if it would have worked, but it didn't," said Kim.
Then, Emerald Sky Dairy began their process of overspreading, regardless of the fact that the DNR promised they would follow their nutrient management plan. With the overspreading came a rise in nitrates. In 2007 when a well was dug, the nitrates came back at 6.9 parts per million (PPM). Kim explained that this is elevated, but still within limits. But 10 years later when they tested the water, the nitrates were ranging from 19 to 33.
The EPA standard sets the threshold for safe drinking water at 10 PPM.
Kim said, "That is a significant jump in a short amount of time. Lots of people like to blame it on being residual and say that we have been putting too much manure on for the past 40 years but this significant of a jump in that short of a time is not a residual increase. It's because somebody is doing a lot of overspreading in the vicinity."
She explained that with the elevated nitrates, the way of living is forever changed for the residents of Emerald. Her friend, who runs a daycare, could not drink her water. When her grandson came to visit and would try to grab a drink of water from the sink, she has to stop him. They cannot rinse off any food and must haul in bottled water—and have been for years now—which isn't only inconvenient but a further display of industrial farms turning a profit at the expense of working-class families.
Many people have told Kim to dig a new well, but she says that isn't always the correct answer to the issue. "You may get water; you may not get water. If you get good water today, there is no guarantee you get good water the next. You can spend 20,000 dollars to get new wells. A neighbor who spent the money to get a new well at 200 feet deep still had nitrate levels at 17 PPM. You cannot dig your way out of this problem," said Kim.
The rising nitrates are also part of an educational challenge. There is a lack of discussion of the health consequences and the environmental impact of manure spills and contamination. People have claimed that reverse osmosis systems are the cure, but it can't help with nitrate levels over 30 PPM, which most of the town was experiencing. Kim said, "There is nothing to do but bring in bottled water. The DNR and St. Croix County Public Health Department kept telling us to just keep testing our water, but they were dumping manure in the ditch."
The manure spill results and contamination
In 2016, new owner, Todd Tuls, took over the Emerald Sky Dairy, and he put in an application to expand the operation from 1,500 cows to 6,000. Kim says that once everyone found out, they started asking more questions. The water was changing every day, and homeowners had to risk it or test the water frequently because as Kim said, "one week it could be contaminated, and the next week it could be fine. We had to ask ourselves if we could shower today but not tomorrow. This isn't a way to live."
St. Croix County has "Karst" bedrock underneath the topsoil, meaning that there is a lot of fissures, caverns, sinkholes, etc. The water moves through karst very quickly, allowing for pollutants to move into our groundwater and into our wells creating more problems.
When Kim sought out help from Madison, she soon discovered that the Dairy Business Association controls much of the governance that comes out of the capital. Former Governor Scott Walker "took away local control and zoning that made the standard so high, farms and expansions would have needed years of water data on record to prove that the CAFO's were harming the soil," said Kim. Governor Walker didn't allow the DNR to exercise their authority, which in turn caused farms like Emerald Sky Dairy to continue its poor land management practices while receiving minimal backlash from the government.
The St. Croix County Board conducted a water study committee instead of a moratorium, which took nine months, and they concluded with eight recommendations. But during the water study, there was an anonymous tip that there had been a major manure spill that was not reported to the DNR via Kim's website, Emerald Clean Water for All. The spill is estimated to have occurred in December of 2016, but was not reported until March of 2017.
Farmers have 24 hours to report a spill, but Emerald Sky Dairy waited over three months. The spill contained solid manure totaling in 3,455 tons and contaminated stormwater equaling eight million gallons, all of this was spread in nearby fields.
There were 90 homes within a two-mile radius of the spill.
"They had to land spread all of the manure around the area. I lived on the same road where the dairy was at the time, and I watched for three and a half days manure trucks every 20 minutes flying by my house. Each truck holds three thousand gallons, and they were spreading all of that on the same 80-acre field for eight to 12 hours a day for three-and-a-half days. If that’s not overspreading, I am not sure what is," said Kim.
One month later, the people of Emerald began finding E. coli in their well water. Out of eight to ten of the neighbors, half of them had E. coli in their water, in fact.
The DNR was contacted, and they came out and bleached the well but would not conduct advanced testing. After this, Kim claimed that "people lost trust in their government; you would think this would be considered a public health issue.”
Kim asked the DNR to let her know the conclusion for the farm but did not hear back. It was not until Kim met with a reporter who had information about the settlement that she finally got her answer. There was 3400 tons of manure in the wetlands, and E. coli readings were ten times the limit, and for the water downstream, it was eight times the limit. "They put a yardstick in one of the wetland ponds and the yardstick wouldn't even touch the bottom. There was over three feet deep of manure," said Kim.
Emerald Sky Dairy was only fined 80,000 dollars, which consisted of a 54,000 dollar base fine, a 26 percent penalty surcharge, a 20 percent environmental damages surcharge, and other investigation and lab costs. The fine was reduced by 95 percent, and they have five years to pay the fine. Appeals have been waived by both parties.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the DNR has failed to send a violation to 94 percent of the 560 instances its policies said it should have over the past decade.
Protecting the rural way of life in St. Croix County
In 2018, Kim moved from her beloved home in Emerald; she didn't want to leave. "I wanted to renovate, but I did not know if the water would be good in future years. They did not give me a reason to stay in Emerald. If I have no hope that things will change, why should I invest all this money?"
Kim is still working with the town even though she doesn’t reside there any longer because she believes that they have a story to tell the world. Kim said, "This shows the flaws in the system. I am still willing to do stuff and shine a spotlight on things because this is not what people think of America. You like to think that water quality matters and you don't have to think about it twice yet every day I was wondering if my water was going to make me sick. You can't trust your water anymore."
Kim went on to say, "I see this as an environmental justice issue. I grew up on a farm. I love rural families, and I love the rural way of life, but this is going to obliterate our rural communities. We can't keep doing what we are doing. If I don't keep sharing my story, not enough people will realize that things need to change. We are getting to the point of no return. No one is going to be able to live here."
The case of Emerald Sky Dairy is an environmental issue created by industrial farms that impact rural, working-class families. "This is a bi-partisan issue. This should not be a battle; this should hardly be a fight. We won't survive if we do not have water," said Kim.
Small family farmers continue to be invested in their local communities and stewards of the land; they put the rural way of life above all. St. Croix County Democrats value small family farmers as the backbone of our community.
Want to help Kim and the residents of Emerald Town? Visit Emerald Clean Water for All where you can learn more about the spill, CAFO's, nitrates, and the fight for clean water.
To take further action, you can sign the petition.