Opponents who have fought against a Green County megafarm for nearly three years say they were disappointed but not surprised after the proposed 5,800-cow dairy received a key state permit last week.
The state Department of Natural Resources issued that permit after it was satisfied Pinnacle Dairy will sufficiently meet water quality standards.
Now, one of the only hurdles left for the megafarm involves fulfilling one condition on a county-issued permit.
Those opposed to Pinnacle don’t expect the county to suddenly shut down the project. And judging by the sprawling construction site bustling with activity, Pinnacle officials aren’t expecting that, either.
To obtain its final permit, Pinnacle must ensure there’s enough distance between the bottom of its manure pits and the top level of groundwater, as previously reported by The Gazette.
Pinnacle is located on County FF amid rolling farmland between Brodhead and Monroe. Jen Riemer and her family farm is about a mile east of the site, and she helped start an opposition group called Green County Defending Our Farmland a couple of years ago.
Even if the county initially rejects the necessary permit, Riemer believes Pinnacle will just continue altering its manure pit construction plans until it gets proper clearance.
The Gazette was unable to reach Green County Conservationist Todd Jenson for comment. Jenson is largely responsible for deciding whether to issue the county permit.
Christa Westerberg, an attorney representing Green County, wrote in an email that Pinnacle cannot use its manure pits for storage until it gets county approval. She said the megafarm also has some minor, ongoing requirements at the county level besides the remaining permit.
The Gazette was unable to reach the Tuls family for comment. The Tulses own Pinnacle and Rock Prairie Dairy east of Janesville, and they also operate other large dairies in Wisconsin and Nebraska.
One of those Tuls-owned locations, Emerald Sky Dairy near Eau Claire, had a manure spill in late 2016 that went unreported for months and remains under DNR investigation.
The farm released a statement last year that said snow concealed the spill and caused the reporting delay.
In a previous interview, T.J. Tuls said the family upgraded Emerald Sky’s facilities to ensure it didn’t happen again. He insisted Pinnacle will not pollute surrounding water sources and said opponents’ environmental concerns were unjustified.
Mark Cain, a DNR wastewater engineer who worked on Pinnacle’s state permit, said the Emerald Sky spill did not factor into the Pinnacle decision. But the DNR tightened environmental regulations on Pinnacle’s permit to further ease concerns, he said.
Those stricter measures include seven additional water quality monitoring wells—bringing the farm’s total to 11 wells—and an annual compliance check with the DNR, Cain said.
The annual check will be self-reported by Pinnacle officials. Asked whether the DNR can expect to receive objective data in those reports, Cain said, “It should.”
The DNR added the extra monitoring wells and yearly evaluation in response to public comments. The state permit decision notice collected some of those comments and provided answers to each, he said.
Riemer wasn’t impressed by that document.
“I feel like they sort of (paid) lip service to citizen concerns brought up at the public hearing,” she said. “Reading through their answers to their comments felt like reading a form letter. There wasn’t a lot of substance.”
She said the extra wells and annual reports were better than nothing. But she questioned the reports’ credibility, considering they are self-assessed.
Riemer and Tressie Kamp, an attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates, both worry Pinnacle will spread manure on vulnerable bedrock, which could taint the water supply.
Riemer said she planned to regularly check her water wells for nitrate levels, something she already does due to the many dairies in the area. If the water gets too dangerous to drink, she will buy bottled water.
Kamp said parts of Green County have karst bedrock, which she compared to Swiss cheese. The Pinnacle build site does not have karst bedrock, but some of its manure-spreading fields do, she said.
Cain said Pinnacle’s nutrient management plan for its fields met necessary state standards.
Kamp said the DNR narrowly interprets its own authority and often issues permits even if it still has environmental questions for megafarms.
Kriss Marion, a board member of the Wisconsin Farmers Union South Central Chapter, said DNR regulations could be stronger. She’s running as a Democrat for state Senate in the 17th District, which covers Wisconsin’s southwestern corner.
One of her ideas is to progressively regulate farms based on size and past performance, alluding to the Tulses’ Emerald Sky investigation. The bigger a farm is, the more benchmarks it should meet, she said.
She worries a farm the size of Pinnacle will displace small dairies. The industry is already dealing with an overabundance of milk.
“In the crowd I run in, there’s certainly not a lot of positivity about this,” Marion said. “I don’t think this is a project that’s being welcomed with open arms in the community.”
If any environmental group wanted to take 11th-hour legal action against the Tulses, it would be tough to stand up to the family dynasty, she said.
Riemer said there has been “some buzz” about a lawsuit, but she wasn’t keen on personally getting involved in court.
Kamp declined to say if Midwest Environmental Advocates plans to take action.
For now, Kamp said Pinnacle could at least go beyond the minimum state regulations and be a “better actor” for the community.
If Riemer could give Pinnacle advice, she would suggest that the farm cover all four of its manure storage pits. The Tulses plan to cover three, but one is expected to remain uncovered, according to site plan documents.
That’s an air quality hazard for her and her family.
“That’s the biggest thing for our family being upwind from it. It’s going to be a major odor causer. It’s not, ‘Oh, it’s going to smell bad,’” she said. “It’s that if you smell something, there’s toxic gases in the air.
“If they could cover that first lagoon, it would avoid toxic gases coming to our place.”