When Something Fails, Try More of the Same!

by John Bobbe

My wife and I have lived on the Door Peninsula in the same neighborhood for 36 years. It is the thumb on Wisconsin that sticks out into Lake Michigan. Door County is billed as the “Cape Cod” of the Midwest with over 300 miles of shoreline along the Bay of Green Bay and Lake Michigan.  The county prides itself as a destination for millions of tourists.

On the morning of September 16th, the day started out as any other until about 10 a.m. I discovered that the 250+ cow dairy farm ¼ mile west of us had a manure system malfunction that resulted in 640,000 gallons of liquid manure spilled and flowing across fields into Sugar Creek.   Sugar Creek is an intermittent stream that flows for several hundred feet through our property.  This was one of the largest manure spills in Wisconsin history.  It was the second manure spill by a large farm within a week in the county.

ManureSpillSugarCreek JohnBobbe

Photo:  Manure spill, Brussels, WI 6 hours after it was discovered.    All running towards Sugar Creek.  Our residence is ¼ mile east of this site and the creek runs through our property.  Courtesy:  John Bobbe

Three sand and straw bale berms were installed in the creek to attempt to contain the spill.  One at the site of the spill entering the creek, one on our property and one about another ¼ mile downstream.

Now it would be easy at first glance to place all the blame on the farmer. My wife and I have known this family for 36 years. However the days after the spill have demonstrated how inept, ill-equipped and incompetent the county soil and water department, other county departments and state agencies such as the WI Department of Natural Resources (DNR) were in dealing with the spill.

Agency incompetence and finger pointing at its finest:

A simple check valve in the manure system that would have prevented the whole mess was reportedly not installed.  Reports are the county soil and water department said it wasn’t needed.  This would fit the pattern as there are other cases in the county where department personnel said specific things weren’t needed that have resulted the potential for more problems like this.

It took the county health department 8 days after to spill to notify residents that we should take precautions such as testing wells and buying bottled water to drink because no information was shared with them.

All the while the county corporation counsel was holding the hands of county supervisors and others assuring them through enough legal gyrations how the county would not be held liable for any screw-up.  After all they have insurance for that just in case.

As a final straw, one week after the spill, and some rain over the ensuing weekend, DNR officials ordered the farmer to remove the retaining dikes in the creek allowing the remaining effluent (now swelled to over 3 million gallons) to simply flow downstream and into the Bay of Green Bay.  They had earlier told me that this was an easy spill to clean up because they had it contained.

This made the situation worse for us as homeowners, because instead of the spill being confined to the creek, it flowed through the ditches completely surrounding our homes.  No attempt was made to inform property owners further downstream of the mess headed their way.

To top this off, the county has no manure spill emergency plan.  The morning the farmer phoned in the spill, it was reported that agency personnel ran around like the sky was falling, not knowing how to react.

Taxpayers take the hit:

It’s easy to think that it is simply a spill and they will clean it up. There are five areas where taxpayers have a vested interest or are taking the hit:

  1.  The initial tax dollars in cost-share to the farmer when the system was installed was over $150,000 – Taxpayers have a vested interest in systems that work;
  2. Cost of personnel for local and state agency personnel for days of work supervising the clean-up;
  3. Department of health costs of well water testing and personnel time;
  4. Degradation of state waters by all this effluent being allowed to simply flush downstream per the DNR’s solution to the problem;
  5. Potential costs which could be significant for the county to defend itself for negligence when the farmer in this case may not be at fault because the county soil and water department engineered the system that failed.

The cost to the farmer is already topping $50,000 to clean up with more costs coming.  Of course after all this demonstrated ineptness, agencies would like to make sure the blame falls totally on the farmer. And perhaps at least some of the blame does lie there.   One voice mail left on the farmer’s phone demonstrates where this is headed.  It was from the county’s soil and water department head threatening to shut him down if he didn’t have his system inspected so it didn’t happen again.  It was bureaucrats attempting to blame the farmer.  The farmer already had the inspection scheduled before they even called.

What all of us as affected home owners are  praying for is a good “gully washer” rain to finish flushing the rest of the spill out of the creek and ditches and on downstream.  Then things can get back to normal.  The county soil and water department can continue to take millions of dollars to engineer the next boondoggle system as they have for over 20 years.  The health department can get back to vaccinations instead of sending registered letters.  And county board members can get back to their regular monthly committee meetings to hear reports from bureaucrats and technocrats in the Courthouse about how all is well and then rubber stamp their reports.  And we as residents, can rest easy as things are now all back to normal until the next major manure spill.

As one long-time Door County farmer, who has a compliant manure system on his farm noted, “The over-all water quality in the county is worse now than when they (referring to the agencies involved) started installing these systems over 20 years ago.”   When something doesn’t work, try more of the same.

John Bobbe is a 36 year resident of Door County who has worked since the late 1980’s to get farmer’s to adopt sustainable and organic farming practices in Door County, Wisconsin,  the Great Lakes Basin including Ontario, Canada. He is currently the Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing, Inc., an organic grain and livestock marketing cooperative with members in 19 states. He is a supporter of the Cornucopia Institute, Food and Water Watch and The Nature Conservancy.

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