[Editor’s Note:  Massive manure spills and their impact, such as described below, are happening all over the country.  This particular account comes from Wisconsin.]

By John Bobbe

Cave Point in Door County
Source: Elvis Kennedy

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 September 16, our home in Wisconsin’s southern Door County was in the path of a 640,000 gallon liquid manure spill from a neighbor’s 250 + cow dairy herd when a Slurrystore valve failed to close.  It was the second mishap within a week in the county.

An earlier spill in Jacksonport, north of Sturgeon Bay occurred when liquid manure was being applied to a field and ran down a sinkhole.  Several wells were and continue to be contaminated as of this writing.  People and pets have gotten sick and it has turned into a battle of insurance companies.

“You understand how slow the process works?” said Supervisor Ken Fisher, who chairs the Land Conservation Committee in an opening statement of the meeting I attended on November 19th.  It took the Door County Land Conservation Committee over 60 days after the manure spill occurred before it even bothered to meet.  And then the committee chair jokingly referenced how long it takes to get a change in a bad highway intersection through a committee as though his committee is helpless to do much.

The committee meets at the call of the chair and apparently he saw no need to meet while people were getting sick, properties devalued and wells contaminated for over 60 days!

The Wisconsin DNR, in a letter to the Door County Soil and Water Department, could find no cause for the failure of the Degrave Slurrystore next to my home.  According to the Peninsula Pulse newspaper, “No one has found a smoking gun, other than the speculation, professional opinion, that there must have been something jammed in that wouldn’t allow the valve to close,” Schuster said.

Schuster also added at the committee meeting that his department will lead the charge in getting engineers to re-examine the manure storage and flow systems. “We’re the ones to push this statewide,” he said. “It will cause a certain amount of angst among other counties.”

Fortunately, citizens are demanding action and had a chance to see firsthand hot-potato tossing and how the “blame the victim syndrome” works when county and state agencies are involved.

At a standing room only meeting of concerned citizens from Door and Kewaunee counties in Jacksonport, December 2nd, many of the same themes were repeated from the November 19th Land Conservation Committee meeting.  The citizens of the community are a lot more educated and informed than the government agency people give them credit for.

Also in attendance to see that county personnel didn’t get out of line was their minder, the county corporation counsel.  Five of the recurring themes and prevalent excuses were again dragged out:

  1. Bill Schuster, Soil and Water department head stated that “We all contribute to water contamination issues” and each of us needs to do our part.  Citizens have been doing their part and ended up with their wells contaminated, lost business revenues and sick people with medical bills.   It was “let’s blame the victim syndrome.”
  2. “The county’s hands are tied by not having enough regulations” was another scenario thrown out by Schuster.  Never mind the lax oversight and enforcement of nutrient management plans or the waiver of installation of a $1200 check valve that could have prevented the spill where I live by his department.
  3. When asked by a citizen if the Wisconsin DNR tested for estrogens and other hormones as well as antibiotics and milk house waste chemicals there was a lot of fumbling and passing the question back and forth before the answer was “not generally.”
  4. Another proposal being pushed by the Soil and Water Department is for landlords who rent their land to farmers to help police nutrient management plans by putting a clause in the rental agreement.  While a wonderful idea, it would appear to shift responsibility from the department to the landowner.  In fact the NPM is between the farmer and the department.
  5. Lastly, it was suggested we should all get on a bus in spring and travel to Madison to lobby for more and better legislation when there is a Door County lobby day.  This is a pipedream in an era of a legislature and governor who want deregulation, not regulation.
  6. When asked about application of manure by irrigation, which is becoming a major problem, Schuster said that would be a low priority for him.  Fortunately there are several towns in Door County that have already banned the practice.

Meanwhile, citizens are still left holding the bag on one fine mess, and a County Soil and Water Department and Land Conservation Committee chairman have cast themselves as helpless to do much of anything.

Paul Leline, Door County Environmental Council board member recently wrote in the November 21, 2014 Peninsula Pulse newspaper, “I believe this situation in Kewaunee and Door Counties is silently rising to a critical level. Authorities are giving the green light to increasing herd sizes, but the regulation and enforcement of a waste management program is weak and needs compliance right now.”

Throwing more taxpayer money at a department that has squandered the millions of taxpayer dollars it has spent on manure systems it has designed and is supposed to monitor is like manure down a sinkhole.  Accountability is what is needed.  The department so-called “leading the charge” on protecting Door County’s water quality, with two manure spills within a week, threw that all out the window.

And if you are a tourist planning to come to Door County, do two things.  Heed Paul Leline’s admonishment “Don’t drink the water.” Secondly, throw a case of bottled water and several boxes of Pepto Bismal in your trunk.  Your vacation could end like a Carnival Cruise with everyone sick.

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