Did potable water lose out to politics in Adams County? | WisCommunity

Did potable water lose out to politics in Adams County?

 A politically-connected cattle operation in Adams County is seeking, and will probably be granted, permission to pollute the area drinking water supply in a case which reflects an ugly turn in the continued politicization of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. It also reveals what could be a disturbing precedent in groundwater regulations.

Before I get to the really good stuff a little history is in order.

An Ozaukee County dairy producer, Jeffrey Opitz, owned and operated Opitz Custom Heifers in the Town of Richfield in Adams County. There he has four feed lots containing over 4,000 animals. While they await their graduation to become dairy cows heifers don't do much besides moo, eat, drink, piss and shit. Not necessarily in that order.

Adams County is located in the environmentally sensitive Central Sands region of the state and the nitrates generated by all that waste easily leaches into the groundwater supply. With animals grazing on the open ground and a high water table that doesn't take long.

It is important to note that the DNR enforcement standard, and human health standard for nitrates in groundwater/drinking water is 10 mg/L. Anything greater than that can trigger ill effects, most notably blue baby syndrome, a reaction that causes infants to lose oxygen in their bloodstream.

Opitz's DNR pollution discharge permit allowed discharges up to the 10 mg/L limit.

However, in test wells near the farm, readings spiked at 29 mg/L which forced the DNR to step in with an enforcement action in 2010. In a stipulated agreement Opitz agreed to pay $65,000 in fines and costs, replace a neighbor's well and completely rehab his facilities with four concrete-floored freestall barns for a pared population of 3,100 cows. This will allegedly mitigate the leachates.. That would normally be the end of the story but it isn't.

Opitz then engaged in what as best described as an agricultural extreme makeover. He created a new LLC, Burr Oak Heifers, and applied for a new discharge permit, this time seeking a limit of 28 mg/L. What? Yes, 28. Nearly three times the enforcement and health limits. Or course the DNR would never accept that you say. Well (pun intended), they did. And issued a permit using that limit.

There is a perverse reasoning behind the higher permissible limits. According to the DNR not all of Opitz's pollution belongs to him. To quote the DNR "While past practices at Opitz Custom Heifers has been identified as a source of groundwater contamination at the Burr Oaks production area, background nitrate levels in the area surrounding this operation are elevated due to activities unrelated to the operation."

In other words, if your pollution is mixed in with your neighbor's pollution, it doesn't count. It is like a drunk driver telling the cop "but officer, I didn't have all those drinks in one place." No pesky arithmetic needed here. If you are living downgradient and your well shows readings over 10 mg/L you are screwed. You will have to punch a deeper well at your own expense.

This touched off a negative reaction, as you would expect, from those who packed the Adams Community Center on April 15 for the public hearing. They were universally opposed to the issuance of the permit but, for those familiar with this process, public hearings on discharge permits are pretty much dog-and-pony shows for a decision that has already been made. You can see the precedent this creates. Polluters can point the finger at their neighbors and absolve themselves of responsibility.

But there appears to be more to this. Since Opitz's troubles began with the DNR in 2008 he has been generous in his donations to legislative Republicans.

Since 2008 he has given $950 to Tea Party activist and State Senator Glenn Grothman, $200 to State Rep. Duey Stroebel and $100 to State Sen. Scott Fitzgerald's recall election.

The Republicans hostility to the DNR needs no introduction. Grothman authored an amendment that slashed 32 positions from the DNR in the last budget bill.

I am not about to make the claim that the donations somehow influenced the DNR to sign on to this outrageous discharge permit proposal.

But, at the very least, someone owes us an explanation.

The documents related to the permit can be found




May 24, 2014 - 12:56pm