In late 2016, a pipe burst at the Emerald Sky Dairy, a factory farm in the town of Emerald in St. Croix County. The resulting leak ended up spilling nearly 300,000 gallons of manure into the surrounding wetlands and water systems.
The farm, which has a permit to operate as a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), has a herd of more than 1,500 cows. Athough the spill began in mid-December 2016, it wasn’t reported until March 29, 2017 after an anonymous tip was made to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
By the time DNR inspectors got to the site that March, there were portions of the facility in which the solid manure was more than three feet deep.
From the crack in the pipe, manure flowed downhill into two wetlands, identified on maps as Wetlands 6 and 7, from there the manure flowed into a stormwater pond. The stormwater pond overflowed and manure flowed into a separate wetland, identified on maps as Wetland 1. A 2018 report by a DNR staff member states how the spill affects the wetlands surrounding the facility.
“Inundation of the wetland area with manure completely removes the capacity of a wetland to store, retain, or moderate storm or flood waters,” the report states. “The plant and soil are covered with a material that does not allow for penetration/absorption by the wetland. The wetland surface on which this interaction takes place has been replaced/lost. An inundated wetland area cannot filter or store any sediments, nutrients or toxic substances that would otherwise adversely impact the quality of the other waters of the state. The ability or capacity to provide this function is completely lost when the wetland surface is lost/filled.”
Ultimately, the DNR and the Wisconsin Department of Justice reached a settlement with the dairy, fining the operation $80,000 and requiring certain steps to be made to clean up the spill and make sure the problems that caused it are fixed.
Nearly 3,500 tons of manure were scraped out of the wetland systems and the facility was required to repair the elevation in parts of wetland seven.
After the spill, DNR testing found that the stormwater pond had levels of E. coli eight times higher than the level that would force the closure of a public beach and the level of E. coli in Wetland 1 was 10.5 times higher. Other contaminants, including phosphorus and ammonia, were elevated as well.
Despite the high levels of contaminants in Wetland 1, the settlement between the state and the dairy did not require any additional cleanup to that wetland, a decision that has left local residents frustrated at their lack of say in the process and worried about the health of the local water system. In 2020, DNR determined that cleanup of the site was complete.
The Town of Emerald Hall is located about half a mile from the dairy. A public well at the town hall was found to have levels of nitrates — a contaminant often connected to large-scale manure spreading — four times the level considered safe by public health officials. The area’s groundwater is especially vulnerable because of the region’s specific geology, which is known as Karst geology and contains underground streams, caves and springs.
Residents say that the contamination in the water has occurred because Wetland 1 was never fully cleaned, alleging that there is still manure sitting in the wetland.
“The issue has never gotten resolved. For them to just drop off this whole wetland and not even try to clean it up, I don’t understand the logic behind that,” says Kim Dupre, a water quality advocate who used to live near the dairy. “That was never explained.”
Steve Oberle, a former Taylor County conservationist with a Ph.D in soil science who has been working with Dupre, says he’s confident that the lack of sufficient cleanup in the wetland has caused the area’s ongoing water quality issues.
“This has gotta be probably the worst spill I’ve ever come across, not to mention they didn’t clean it up,” he says. “What were they thinking?”
But officials at St. Croix County and the DNR say that what Dupre and Oberle allege isn’t quite what happened. Ben Uvaas, the DNR’s CAFO Program Enforcement Coordinator, says that while Wetland 1 was contaminated and that was part of the violation that the dairy was punished for, there was never solid manure in the wetland the way there was in other areas. Instead, he says, the Wetland 1 contaminants were dissolved in water that overflowed from the stormwater pond.
“When you read the inspection reports or the documentation associated with a spill, it never indicates the settling out of recoverable manure solids in Wetland 1,” Uvaas says. “All these documents certainly indicate a discharge of manure and manure-laden water through Wetland 1, that was part of the violations that accumulated the $80,000 forfeiture associated with this event. Discharges of pollutants to Wetland 1 in an unlawful manner. So that happened, but that’s different than a cleanup you can recover that material from, so dissolved pollutants associated with manure, well, they’re dissolved by nature, so they’re not going to drop out and you can’t pick them back up in some fashion.”
“That’s the state’s position on it,” he continues. “There’s just not recoverable material. You know, certainly not compared to the other sites or the other parts of the site that remain contaminated.”
Tim Steiber, St. Croix County’s Resource Management Administrator, acknowledges that the whole county has problems with water quality and is working on efforts to improve the water around Emerald, but he says it’s unlikely the 2016 spill is the only cause of the issues and it’s tough to tell if the wetland wasn’t properly cleaned. Though he adds that the Emerald Sky spill caused the county to reassess its policies around responding to manure spills.
Steiber says that there’s manure spreading happening regularly on the field near the Emerald Town Hall and there have been other, smaller spills on the site. In fact, just this week, another settlement agreement between the state and the dairy was approved — this time a $65,000 forfeiture for a fish kill that occurred in 2019 as a result of manure that was spread on a corn field and flowed into a creek.
“There’s more to be learned but it’s just tough, slow going,” Steiber says. “I don’t know that there’s a legal mechanism for the citizens’ group left. I think they’ve exhausted some of that. I would think if we can get somebody that knows their wetland business we can have them look at this one and one or two others in the area we know haven’t had spills and compare the composition of the upper layers. I’m not even positive what physical tool or mechanism or test is needed in this particular case. As far as figuring out if that wetland really did get cleaned up or not, it’s going to be pretty tough. It’s five years. Everything loves manure; it’s broken down pretty effectively. It’s not going to be, I don’t believe it’s really easy to make this determination. I’m used to dealing with stuff that happened last month.”
The Emerald Sky Dairy’s permit to operate as a CAFO is pending renewal and Dupre’s group is planning to voice its concerns at the required public comment and Uvaas says the DNR is waiting for an assessment of the local groundwater before that process moves forward. The Nebraska company that operates the dairy did not respond to an email requesting comment for this story.
Despite Steiber’s doubts that the Wetland 1 contamination is what has caused the local water quality problems, he says St. Croix County has about six to eight manure spills per year though usually they’re much smaller than the Emerald Sky spills in 2016 and 2019 and most farms don’t spill so regularly.
“If it’s a bad actor, they always spill another dump,” he says. “Good farmers don’t spill that often.”