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Jury is out on DNR plans for large farms

Consequences of allowing large farms in Wisconsin to craft permit applications not yet known

posted Dec. 2, 2016 12:10 a.m. | updated Dec. 2, 2016 12:10 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Pamela Powers. bio | email

The decision this week by the state Department of Natural Resources to allow large farms to craft their own pollution and construction permit applications came as no surprise to Eau Claire County UW-Extension agriculture agent Mark Hagedorn.

Hagedorn said the DNR had been setting the stage for some time to streamline operations.

“In my perception, as long as the DNR has got adequate oversight to be sure the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed, streamlining the process is not going to hurt farmers’ feelings, taxpayers’ feelings and not have an adverse impact on the environment,” Hagedorn said.

There are checks and balances in the system over concentrated animal feeding operations, he noted.

The cornerstone of the plan announced Wednesday by the DNR would allow CAFOs to hire qualified consultants to craft applications for manure handling and construction permits.

Hagedorn said certified contractors will do as good, if not a better, job because they are “not stretched as thin” as DNR employees.

Dave Styer, who co-owns Alfalawn Farm in rural Menomonie, a 2,000-milking-cow farm, said large farms almost always hire consultants to help with engineering and manure management plans.

Anything the DNR can do to lighten their caseload and best use their resources wisely is a “win-win,” Styer said.

Dunn County conservationist Dan Prestebak said the county now relies on the DNR to review plans to make sure manure storage plans meet county standards. The county may have to look at hiring engineers to make sure standards are met or could decide to accept the certified engineers’ plans created for farmers.

“It definitely could put more of a burden on the county to have an engineer review plans for manure storage,” Prestebak said.

Jeff Smith, an organizer for the social justice group Citizen Action Organizing Cooperative of Western Wisconsin, said the restructuring could allow the DNR to focus on follow-through efforts. But he is concerned if consultants paid by large farms will remain objective.

“It is another story of privatizing another public service,” Smith said. “For me, it is something we have to be very, very cautious about. It if is for profit, it is not always in the best interest for the public or the environment.

“That is what government is about. We (the public) are paying the bill so they are here to protect us.”

The reorganization plan will be implemented in phases with final changes anticipated by early 2018. Some portions may require legislative approval.

Meanwhile, DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp tried Thursday to clarify the DNR plan by posting a statement online saying the new program should result in highly skilled consultants turning in higher-quality applications, saving time, according to The Associated Press.

Contact: 715-556-9018, pamela.powers@ecpc.com, @MenomonieBureau on Twitter