John Bobbe is not happy with the response to the Sept. 16 manure spill at his neighbor’s farm on County D in Brussels.
Early that morning, 640,000 gallons of liquid manure escaped from the two million gallon holding tank owned by farmer Kurt DeGrave.
Bobbe and his wife live a quarter-mile to the west of the farm and they have known the DeGrave family for 36 years.
“We had manure water on all four sides of us,” Bobbe said. “It would be easy at first glance to place all the blame on the farmer. A simple check valve in the manure system that would have prevented the whole mess was reportedly not installed. Reports are the county Soil and Water Department said it wasn’t needed.”
Bobbe said he asked a Soil and Water employee at DeGrave’s farm if it was true that the department waived the installation of the check valve and got the response, “Well, it worked for five years.”
“And then,” Bobbe said, “the farmer piped up and said, ‘Yes, they did waive it.’”
Bill Schuster, head of the Door County Soil and Water Conservation Department, was not available for comment. How the spill happened is still under investigation by the Department of Natural Resources, the state agency responsible for manure spills.
“The investigation is still continuing,” said Ed Culhane of the DNR. “I can tell you that tank was designed by an engineer and was signed off on by the county. We’re still investigating what happened with the door and some valves. In the meantime, the farmer has installed a failsafe valve called a duck-bill valve.”
Bobbe is less concerned with how it happened than the multi-agency response to the spill.
“The days after the spill have demonstrated how inept, ill equipped and incompetent the county Soil and Water Department, other county departments and state agencies such as the Department of Natural Resources were in dealing with the spill,” he said. “It’s obvious that agencies are not talking to each other. The county has emergency plans for everything but they don’t have one for a manure spill.”
For example, he said, when the first reports of the spill were announced on Sept. 16, the DNR was saying area residents should not worry about groundwater contamination because the spill had been contained with berms. Eight days later, area residents received a letter from the county Health Department saying they should have their well water tested and until the tests come back clean, they should be using bottled water rather than tap water from their wells.
“It takes eight days to get us the letter that we should get our water tested,” Bobbe said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a problem for our well because it’s in clay, but it could be for a couple of other neighbors.”
On Monday, Sept. 22, after a rainy weekend and consultations with a variety of experts, including their own fisheries staff, the DNR decided to remove the berms and let the remaining liquid manure flow down Sugar Creek and into Green Bay.
“I’m appalled by the way the DNR chose to handle it,” Bobbe said. “To finish it, it was just open the banks and let it go. I asked the county Health Dept. if anybody was informed. If it’s a hazard for us, and we’re still under orders to drink bottled water, it must be a hazard for those downstream as well.”
Culhane of the DNR said that was not the end of the cleanup.
“It’s a complex cleanup and we’re still working on it,” he said. “A number of difficult things presented itself. For instance, we have an alfalfa field next to the farmstead that’s loaded with manure. And it keeps raining. That field is holding that manure with all those plants. The decision was to leave those plants in place. I think eventually the plan is to till that soil into the ground. And then we’ll have a hyper-fertilized field for a while, but there’s really no way to get it out of there.”
As to the decision to let the remaining manure flow down Sugar Creek, Culhane said it was done after much consultation.
“We were holding back more than a million gallons of water by Monday morning. There were a number of issues there,” he said. “It was starting to overflow the creek and was ready to flood our containment area. There were concerns about the integrity of County D. It was not designed to hold back that much water. Everything was well diluted, so it was the judgment of fisheries we wouldn’t have a big impact downstream, that it wouldn’t result in fish kill or a significant threat, moving out towards the bay, where we have even greater dilution, obviously. Eventually we would have gone in there and done some flushing along that creek bed anyway.”
Bobbe, executive director of Organic Farmers Agency for Relationship Marketing, a cooperative of organic grain and livestock producers in 19 states, said the county should be better prepared for future events.
“The bottom line is, they keep putting these monsters out here and it’s prone to happen again,” he said. “There is public investment in that farm of $150,000 to $175,000. The taxpayers have the right to have some expectations of the farmer, and he feels bad about it, but we have some expectations of our state and county agencies, that they are going to be responsive to protect the taxpayers’ investment and to keep that farmer in business. And to keep it from happening again.”
One of Bobbe’s suggestions is when another major spill happens in the county, the county should set up a central source of information for residents.
“There is no central place to get information,” he said. “My suggestion is they set up an emergency place in the town hall where residents have a single place to go where they can get information about the emergency, water testing kits, whatever else they needed right there.”