Howard Pahl lives in the rural township of Trade Lake, Wisc., which he’s called home since 1978. He’s one of only a few; the 36-square mile township is home to just 823 people.
Most of the township and its residents are downwind of a proposed industrial swine facility that has put them on defense. Pahl spoke to the Burnett County board of supervisors at their recent meeting to discuss Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that have their sights set on the county.
The county board of supervisors was discussing recommendations from the Large-Scale Livestock Facility Committee at its Dec. 17 meeting.
Pahl told the elected officials that he attended almost every meeting of the county’s ad hoc Large-Scale Livestock Facility Committee. The group had been studying CAFOs for the past year, examining how the county might protect its residents and resources from CAFO pollution and other negative impacts.
He said what started as a vigorous and critical project to learn about the threats and the possible protections, with input from citizens, eventually became simply an attempt to get something on paper.
“What we ended up with here at the end is something that doesn’t protect my home or my neighbors’ homes,” Pahl said. “We ended up in something called a ‘sacrifice zone.’ I don’t refer to the home that my wife and I built with our own hands as a sacrifice zone.”
Such “sacrifice zones” were a main topic of discussion during the county board’s meeting.
The term is frequently used in Wisconsin, because of a restriction in state law that basically forces local governments to allow CAFOs somewhere in their jurisdiction. If a county uses zoning to prohibit livestock facilities larger than about 500 animals in any area, it must also include zones where unlimited numbers of animals are allowed.
A Madison-based attorney speacializing in CAFOs who the county hired to help, Larry Konopacki, advised the board that its hands are largely tied, with the most contentious issues dictated by the state.
“The law says you have little authority to regulate, and if you want to exercise the little authority you do have, you have to stay in your lane,” Konopacki told the supervisors. “Most of the things people would like to see are not things the county has the legal authority to do.”
Wisconsin is known for closely controlling local decisions about CAFOs, ever since passing a law in 2004 that was meant to ensure factory farms could get permitted statewide. The state also enacted a strict “right to farm” law in 1995 that protects operators from lawsuits by neighbors.
“I was amazed at how little authority we have,” said supervisor Dorothy Richards.
But many of the county’s residents disagree with the assessment. They point to other counties in the state that have used diligent research to pass ordinances that keep CAFOs from contaminating local lakes, rivers, and groundwater.
Deb Ryun has led the St. Croix River Association for 10 years and also happens to live in Trade Lake Township. She spoke to the board as both director of the group protecting clean water in the St. Croix and its tributaries, and a potential CAFO neighbor.
Ryun said “the concept of ‘sacrifice zones’ is incredibly flawed.”
“Pollution will not respect lines drawn on a map, and everyone will pay the price for producing unlimited animals in an unsustainable way,” she told the board.
Bayfield County, not far north of Burnett, passed such an ordinance in 2015, and a CAFO proposal was subsequently retracted.
Preventing problems and pollution is possible — with due diligence. Wisconsin’s CAFO law lets a county create stricter regulations than the state only if it provides sound scientific research to support it. That can be a tall order for a rural county with limited resources.
But Konopacki said more study and work is exactly what the Large-Scale Livestock Committee had recommended.
“Basically what this committee said is ‘consider the kinds of things you think are necessary to protect public health and safety,’ and provided two examples of deeper setbacks or more storage of manure,” Konopacki said. “It doesn’t mean it isn’t recommending more things be done.”
The committee’s critics said it should have done more research, and documented what the members learned in an official “findings of fact” document.
Trade Lake resident and attorney Marshall said research doesn’t mean the county has to conduct expensive field work or laboratory studies, but reading peer-reviewed studies and official documents about CAFOs could suffice.
“Like a lot of people, I was encouraged when Burnett County passed the moratorium. Its purpose was to study and examine if changes to ordinance were required or if additional ordinances should be created,” Marshall said. “The gist of the recommendations is that more study is needed, by other committees.”
The facts have been well established by many studies in recent years: CAFOs produce enormous amounts of manure in small areas — the hog operation proposed in Trade Lake Township would have as many as 26,000 animals in three barns, producing nine million gallons of manure each year. There is evidence of contaminants making it into drinking water, lakes, and streams. The operations also release gasses into the atmosphere, producing noxious effects on neighbors.
CAFOs may also be the source of dangerous new viruses.
“When respiratory viruses get into these confinement facilities, they have continual opportunity to replicate, mutate, reassort, and recombine into novel strains,” Gregory Gray, director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Iowa College of Public Health said in a 2009 article in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.
If a county connects environmental and health threats to its CAFO policies, it can stand up to challenges.
“You have to say here are the scientific facts, we adopt these facts as a county, here is what those facts direct us to do to protect public safety, and here’s why we need to do it,” Konopacki said.
One example is conducting groundwater surveys, which could then be used to rezone areas.
Konopacki told the Large-Scale Livestock Committee at its September meeting that about 80 percent of Burnett County is sandy soil, with a high water table, meaning manure contaminants could easily leach into aquifers. With adequate documentation, those areas could be made off-limits to CAFOs.
Supervisor Ramona Moody, who represents the Trade Lake district, said the water table in parts of her area is just 12 inches from the surface — and zoned as “Exclusive Agriculture,” otherwise known as “sacrifice zones.”
Moody also said the county has power to require CAFOs are run as responsibly as possible.
“The county does have authority to do operational ordinances, not direct them where they can and can’t site, but here’s how you’re going to be a neighbor in our county,” Moody said.
Marshall mentioned another county in Wisconsin, Crawford County along the Mississippi, which has been working on new CAFO regulations at the same time as Burnett. Their committee recently completed its work with a 60-page document describing the empirical facts that can support stewardship rules.
He called on the supervisors to extend the moratorium so the work so far isn’t proven pointless.
“Everything that it’s done over the past year plus can be wasted if they don’t have the protection of a continuing moratorium,” Marshall told the board.
The St. Croix River Association urged Burnett County to ask the Large-Scale Livestock Committee to develop a solid footing for stringent restrictions.
“We request that you take the time to do this right, and not rush through changes to the ordinance that will do little to promote and uphold Burnett County values,” Ryun said. “Please send this ordinance back to the committee for more work, utilizing a much broader information base than has been examined to date.”
Ultimately, the board did send the report for additional consideration at the committee level, but not the Large-Scale Livestock Committee. It assigned different parts to standing county committees to do more research, draft ordinances, or something else.
The supervisors did not decide if they would extend the moratorium on CAFO applications, which expires in early January, well before the committees will have a chance to work.
Meanwhile, numerous cities and environmental groups in Wisconsin have signed a request for a statewide CAFO moratorium while laws are updated to protect water, manage manure, and give local governments more power.