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Our view: DNR derelict in not alerting La Crosse County about tainted wells

Our view: DNR derelict in not alerting La Crosse County about tainted wells

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“Clean air, clean water and healthy landscapes.”

That’s what Wisconsin should stand for.

In fact, those are the first words on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website — as we’ve pointed out in previous editorials expressing concern about the dangers of high-capacity wells and audits showing that the DNR has failed more than 90 percent of the time to enforce water-pollution limits.

Sadly, we need to keep expressing concerns about enforcement of clean water regulations, because the Tribune’s report last week on elevated nitrate levels near a huge hog operation in La Crosse County was very troubling — and the DNR’s response to the potential groundwater problem is embarrassing.

Babcock Genetics has a permit to raise more than 4,000 hogs in the town of Holland near Holmen.

Since at least 2005, according to a report by the Legislative Audit Bureau, the nitrate levels measured in test wells near the hog operation have exceeded limits set by the state — as much as five times that limit as recently as 2010.

While those levels have been improving since 2010, they still don’t comply.

La Crosse County has notified neighboring landowners of potential groundwater contamination, and hundreds of town residents have responded by asking the county to test their water.

Maybe the most troubling part of all, however, was the DNR’s response when La Crosse County officials sought state records documenting groundwater problems near that concentrated animal feeding operation.

Here’s what DNR spokesman Jim Dick told the Tribune: “The DNR doesn’t have a policy regarding notifying municipalities or private well owners in the vicinity when a CAFO violates a permit.”

Let’s pause on that: A state agency that collects data about environmental quality doesn’t care enough about public health to alert people or the counties where they live about a potential problem with the water they drink.

Why not?

Shouldn’t the DNR, shouldn’t someone with the state, care enough about the health of its citizens to alert them to potential problems with drinking water?

Or, is Wisconsin so entirely open for business that it simply doesn’t care about people anymore?

If the state is keeping data on groundwater, why isn’t it sharing it willingly with its own counties, its own people, in the spirit of public health?

Instead, the county had to file a request with the state for information about excessive nitrate levels.

The state provided no answer for a couple of months, and then, when it finally did respond, it was vague.

In response, the now-retired county health inspector filed four public-records requests to get answers.

All of this took months.

It’s inexcusable. It’s outrageous. And, it should prompt legislative review of DNR policy and practices.

The DNR and its leadership should be embarrassed and ashamed. Then again, if they can’t be bothered to tell us when there’s a potential environmental problem, we can only assume they don’t care.

County health officials shouldn’t be required to become experts on public-records law in order to find out whether there’s a health hazard in their own county.

The state should be forthcoming and transparent — especially when it involves the health of its citizens.

The DNR should not force counties to play games and wait months for an answer.

Monica Kruse, who chairs the La Crosse County Board’s Health and Human Services committee, told the Tribune: “I think political decisions are adversely affecting people’s health.”

That just can’t be — not in Wisconsin, where the top of the DNR’s website states: “Clean air, clean water, healthy landscapes. These are foundations of Wisconsin’s economy, environment and quality of life. They are the assets that separate us from the rest of the pack.”

Those are the DNR’s words.

It’s time the DNR live up to them for the healthy and safety of Wisconsin’s citizens.


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