Some of the soil where Cumberland LLC wants to build three large hog barns and manure basins is saturated with water, according to consultants hired by the company. Groundwater has been found just below the surface of fields that were recently used for growing corn.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says these wet soils and other indicators mean the site is a protected wetland, and developers must apply for permits to disturb it.
But Cumberland disagrees. The company, which is backed by an Iowa corporation, wants to open a 26,000-hog facility near the Trade and Wood Rivers, tributaries to the St. Croix. It said in its application that the wetlands were created by human actions and are therefore exempt from regulation.
The hog facility would include three manure storage tanks under the barns, which would apparently extend below the water table in some parts of the site. The pits are planned to be at least 10 feet deep.
Documents that Cumberland submitted to the DNR include photos, maps, and analysis by environmental engineers. One consultant dug test pits throughout the site to document the depth to groundwater.
“[Saturated] soils were identified in the wetland soil cores,” consultants with the firm Tetra Tech, hired by Cumberland, reported. “Appropriate wetland permits and authorizations will need to be obtained for impacts to the wetlands.”
Photos of soil testing courtesy Sand Creek Consultants and Tetra Tech.
Wetlands are protected by state and federal law because they help prevent floods, reduce water pollution, and provide valuable wildlife habitat. To receive a permit to alter a wetland, developers must usually buy credits that protect wetlands elsewhere.
“Landowners and developers are required to avoid wetlands with their projects whenever possible;” the DNR says. “If the wetlands can’t be avoided, they must apply for permits and receive approval to proceed with proposed wetland impacts.”
Wetland protections can be bypassed if a landowner can show there was not a wetland at a site before 1991 through the use of historic maps, images, surveys, and other resources.
Cumberland said “the existing area is currently used for crop production,” and the company’s consultants pointed to “evidence of farming practices in recent years and grass seed spread in 2019.”
On July 30, the DNR notified Cumberland it had rejected the artificial wetland determination. That was followed by notice that the rest of the application would be put on hold until the wetland questions are resolved.
“While characteristics of long term agriculture could result [in] changes in soil properties like bulk density and may be attributed in part to human activity, if such large scale spatial and temporal justifications qualified for an artificial exemption, essentially all areas lacking wetland history prior to 1991 would lose state protection,” the DNR wrote. “Therefore, DNR made a policy decision that the human disturbance criteria must be more specific, such as grading, filling, or drainage alterations conducted at a defined point in time on, adjacent or in close proximity to the subject parcel.”
The agency says the wetlands identified by Cumberland’s consultants do not appear to be caused by human activity.
With the request denied, the proposal is in limbo. Cumberland may need to change its proposal, or pursue mitigation. Because of the prospect of such significant changes to the design, the DNR will not continue reviewing the application until wetlands issues are approved.
“As a result of the artificial wetland decision, alternative wetland permitting options need to be explored based on anticipated wetland disturbances with the submitted proposed site layout,” the DNR wrote to Jeff Sauer of Cumberland LLC. “Due to the potential for significant site design changes, it is the Department’s policy to not approve plans and specifications until wetland permitting decisions are finalized.”
The company has 30 days to appeal the DNR’s decision and request a judicial review or a contested case hearing.
Located on Highway 48 in the town of Trade Lake, the site proposed for the swine operation would produce about 9 million gallons of manure and other waste each year, which would be spread as fertilizer on nearby fields.
Similar operations elsewhere have contaminated groundwater, lakes and rivers, and the air. This has required costly drinking water treatment, reduced property values for neighbors, killed fish and other wildlife, and harmed human health.
There are no similar operations in the region, and local citizens, farmers, and environmental groups are pushing for strict local regulation of the industry.
Knowledge is power.