Juneau County Lawsuit: Dairy Companies Knew They Were Contaminating Groundwater, Wells

Via Wisconsin Rapids Tribune:

MAUSTON – A company fighting for more than six years to build a mega-dairy near Wisconsin Rapids is in a new legal battle over nitrates that contaminated water supplies near another of its operations.

A civil case listing 81 plaintiffs, all of whom own property in Juneau County, accuses the company of knowingly contaminating groundwater and private well systems and endangering neighbors for at least a decade without warning them.

The lawsuit asks for a Juneau County judge to order the Wysocki Produce Farms and Central Sands Dairy to stop contaminating groundwater, provide drinkable water and a source-based water purification system for homes that need them, pay for ongoing medical monitoring of people affected by the contaminated water and pay for the money lost by property owners because of missed work and reduced property values.

The lawsuit also asks for a judge to order the companies to pay punitive fees but does not list a dollar amount.

Wysocki Produce Farms is part of the Wysocki Family of Cos., which is also part owner of Central Sands Dairy. The company also has plans to build Golden Sands Dairy in Saratoga, a town about a mile south of the city of Wisconsin Rapids.

The Wysocki company has been battling Saratoga residents and town officials since announcing in June 2012 that it planned to build a concentrated animal feeding operation or CAFO, in Saratoga. The proposed Golden Sands Dairy, which would hold about 4,000 cows and have about 6,000 acres of crops where the company will spread the manure from the cows, has been the subject of controversy since it was proposed.

In June, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in favor of the proposed Golden Sands Dairy in a case involving the right to farm about 6,000 acres adjacent to the proposed dairy. The same month, the Wood County and Juneau County health departments warned residents in the towns of Armenia and Port Edwards that water testing on their properties showed high nitrate levels in some private wells. Health officials warned people to avoid drinking the water from the contaminated wells.

A short time later, the Wysocki Produce Farms joined with Okray Family Farms and B&D Farms, three of the largest of many farms in the affected area, to form the Armenia Growers Coalition. The group offered to supply bottled water to the residents with contaminated wells and pay for the installation of new water systems. In December, the Wood County Board approved the county administering the program.

The new lawsuit says Wysocki Produce Farms and Central Sands Dairy’s handing of manure — its storage, spreading and disposal, along with the application of fertilizer —  is responsible for groundwater contamination. The company contaminated the aquifer that supplies water to the the contaminated wells, according to the court documents.

Before getting a permit from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the company told residents its cropping practices would improve the quality of the soil and water in the Central Sands region of Wisconsin, according to the documents. Wysocki representatives said a manure digester would keep the farm’s effect in the neighborhood small, and the smell would be minimal.

At least two properties became uninhabitable because of manure spraying, swarming flies and the infiltration of ammonia odor into the walls of the homes, according to court documents. The dairy bought the properties, the complaint said.

Central Sands Dairy installed monitoring wells in January 2008 and knew since that same year that its practices were contaminating groundwater, the lawsuit alleges.

The company also knew that nearby wells were contaminated in 2012 but continued to allow nitrates to seep into the groundwater supplying the properties — all while it failed to notify residents of the contamination, the plaintiffs claim.

The pollutants put the residents at an increased risk of cancer and other illnesses, and it lowers their property values, according to the civil complaint.

Wysocki Produce Farms and Golden Sands Dairy were both served notice of the lawsuit on Dec. 5, according to online records. No court dates have been scheduled as of Monday.

Tim Huffcutt, a spokesman for the Armenia Growers Association and Wysocki Family Producer, sent a prepared statement to USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin in response to the allegations.

“The Armenia Growers Coalition has been working voluntarily and cooperatively with homeowners in Juneau and Wood counties, as well as with local, state and federal officials, since August of last year to ensure a safe supply of drinking water as a result of elevated nitrate levels detected in some private wells in the area,” the statement says. “Since then, we already have helped dozens of homeowners by providing bottled water and/or residential reverse osmosis water systems to help ensure residents continue to have access to drinking water that meets federal standards.”

The coalition hopes the agreement already approved by Wood County will be approved by Juneau County as well so that the association can get bottled water and water systems to those people who need them, Huffcutt said in the statement. The Juneau County Board is scheduled to vote on the issue this month.

“It should be noted that there are various sources of nitrates in the environment and that agricultural practices have evolved over the years,” according to the statement. “Some of the land in this area has been farmed for decades dating back as far as the 1950s. The Armenia Growers Coalition believes this effort is the best way forward, and we look forward to implementing this expanded effort.”

Meantime, nitrate contamination in southwest Wisconsin has drawn legislative attention.

State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said this month that he will form a Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality after samples taken of water in Grant, Iowa and Lafayette counties showed 42 percent of the wells were contaminated with nitrates.

Rep. Scott Krug, whose Assembly district includes Saratoga and borders Juneau County, said he has talked with Vos for years about creating a task force and hopes to be appointed as a member. Krug said he’s been working on water-quality bills for six years.

He said he’s also been telling both producers and residents for years that they need to be part of the solution.

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