MILWAUKEE (AP) — The Wisconsin Supreme Court dealt a blow to environmentalists concerned about water pollution from huge livestock farms Wednesday, when it said communities couldn't set stricter standards than the state.
The ruling was believed to be the first decision by a state Supreme Court in about a half-dozen cases pitting neighbors and small farmers throughout the Midwest against so-called factory farms, which can have hundreds or even thousands of animals. Similar cases have been filed in Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio and Oklahoma, and the decision was closely watched.
Farm groups cheered the ruling, saying it will allow farms to grow and expand under predictable and consistent terms applied statewide. But clean water activists said it will only encourage the growth of huge farms, with thousands of animals producing more manure than the land can handle and runoff that contaminates rivers and underground water sources.
The Wisconsin case began in 2007 when Larson Acres Inc. applied for a permit to expand its farm in Magnolia, a rural community of about 1,000 people about 30 miles south of Madison. The farm already had 1,000 cows, and residents blamed it for polluting their water supply.
Town officials cited tests showing high nitrate levels, which could be evidence of pollution from manure, so the town granted the permit with conditions: The farm had to allow the town to conduct monthly water quality tests on its land, and it had to follow certain crop-rotation strategies to reduce nitrate buildup.
The farm sued, arguing that pollution-control measures are laid out by the state and can't be modified by individual towns.
The state Supreme Court agreed, saying state law prevented the town from imposing additional conditions on top of standards the state already set for permits.
Justice Michael Gableman, writing for the majority, said the law was designed to provide uniform regulation of livestock facilities and balance the important interests of protecting natural resources and encouraging a robust agricultural economy.
The dairy industry is one of Wisconsin's biggest businesses, and the decision was the latest in a string of pro-business rulings by the state's Republican-dominated Supreme Court.
Larson Acres has denied allegations that it's responsible for the water pollution in Magnolia, and owner Mike Larson said in a statement that he was pleased by the court's decision. He said it "assures that farms across the state are subject to uniform, consistent and fair regulatory standards."
But Tarah Heinzen, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project in Washington, D.C., said the water pollution that already existed in Magnolia shows the state's enforcement process wasn't enough.
"What this case does is demonstrate a greater need for state oversight over its dairy industry," she said.
Rural communities throughout the Midwest and West have been struggling to deal with water, air quality and other problems created as the number of big farms grows with industry consolidation.
There are about 240 mega farms in Wisconsin, up from 219 two years ago and 138 in 2005, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. The state considers mega farms those with 714 or more dairy cows.
Two of the lead plaintiffs in the Wisconsin case were Verne and Rosemary Wilke, who used to milk 50 cows on a farm about half a mile from Larson Acres' operations. Rosemary Wilke, 78, recalled a public meeting where she said a Larson representative told neighbors they were free to move if they thought Larson was causing pollution.
"I thought it was the most stupid comment I ever heard," she said. "My husband was born on that farm. His grandfather farmed the same way, and they never had a problem with water pollution, and they're telling us we should move."
Wisconsin has laws allowing state regulators to monitor water quality and impose pollution standards, and the court said towns could introduce their own regulations separate from the permitting process. An attorney for Larson Acres previously suggested the town could monitor its water quality and sue the farm if nitrate levels got too high.
But Dela Ends, 59, an organic farmer who lives about two miles from a Larson Acres barn that houses more than 1,000 cows, said it makes more sense to prevent pollution in the first place rather than clean it up later.
"It's just very sad that there's no protections for public health in regard to these farms," she said. "This is about money and power and not about the welfare of the people."