CAFO oversight needs to stay with the DNR

posted May 22, 2017 10:46 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Jim Massey, Editor |

An ill-advised proposal to study whether to move the oversight of concentrated animal feeding operations from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has ended up where it belongs — on the scrap heap.

During its budget deliberations last month, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee nixed a Gov. Scott Walker budget proposal to study whether more of the regulation and permitting of the state’s CAFOs should be done by the DATCP rather than the DNR. The idea wasn’t a good one and it ended up on the cutting-room floor.

In making his proposal, the governor was apparently reacting to a recent Legislative Audit Bureau report that indicated the DNR does not have adequate funds or staff to oversee the state’s CAFO program. The solution to that problem should be to beef up the funding and staff at the DNR, not pass along the responsibilities to the farmer-friendly DATCP.

There is no doubt that since the state Legislature passed the Wisconsin Livestock Facility Siting Law in 2004, it has become easier for farms to get bigger and new farms to be created. The state now has more than 280 CAFOs, which are defined as farms with 1,000 animal units or more.

The livestock-siting law establishes uniform state standards to be used by local governments to make siting decisions for new or expanding livestock operations. Those standards restrict the ability of local governments to direct the location of new livestock facilities through zoning or protective ordinances.

“This rule replaces local regulations that, in some cases, have made it impossible to start or expand livestock operations,” DATCP officials said when the rule was first enacted. 

Some would say the move to provide consistent statewide rules for farmers has virtually eliminated local control. Just ask the folks in Green County, who recently approved an application for a 5,000-cow dairy despite overwhelming opposition in the community. Local officials had no choice but to approve the application, based on the livestock-siting law.

The DNR has long been viewed as a regulator while the DATCP is more of a facilitator. That’s not a bad thing, since agriculture needs both. But it wouldn’t necessarily be a good idea to put the DATCP — the agency that is known for helping farmers — in charge of making sure that they are following the rules on something as important as air and water quality.  

Not that the DNR has done that great of a job of keeping an eye on large farms, either. One DNR regulator told The Country Today that in the past, he has been tasked with the oversight of as many as 100 CAFOs, which in some cases meant the farms were only visited once every five years. A lot can happen in five years.

Meanwhile, the state’s CAFO monitoring and inspection program is based primarily on self-inspection and self-reporting. It is the responsibility of the owner to keep the farm in compliance.

Would that be kind of like putting drivers in charge of making sure they don’t go 80 mph in a 55 mph speed zone?   

The DNR announced last September that it would be dedicating up to 21 inspectors for CAFO programs in its 2017-2019 budget. Officials said they would be paying closer attention to production areas and land-application sites, and would conduct more manure-hauling audits. They also said there will be more attention paid to things like updates of the farm’s nutrient-management plans and up-to-date inspection reports. 

No one likes paperwork and government oversight, but unfortunately, that goes with the territory when operating a large business. And CAFOs are large businesses.

DATCP Secretary Ben Brancel said in February that the DATCP doesn’t have enough staff to conduct permitting or regulatory oversight of large farms. If more regulatory staff is the answer to making sure large farms are following the rules, then those staff members should be added at the DNR.

The Legislature should follow through on the Joint Finance Committee’s action to ditch the governor’s CAFO proposal. And the DNR should beef up its oversight efforts, not to the point of becoming pests to farmers but to help them follow the rules the way they were written.

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