Panel Hears from Tainted Well Owners

A public meeting on the wells contaminated by manure spreading will be held at the Jacksonport Town Hall at 6 pm on Dec. 2, Bill Schuster, head of the Door County Soil and Water Department, revealed at the Nov. 19 meeting of the Land Conservation Committee.

The committee meeting was attended by many of the residents of the area contaminated by improper manure spreading by a subcontractor for the Haberli Farms on Sept. 8-9. They reported details of family members getting violently ill, a beloved German shepherd dying, and the many hardships associated with living in a home where you can’t drink, cook with or even bathe in the water.

“We can’t use it for anything,” said Diane Schleicher, who lives in the affected area. She recently had cataract surgery and fears blindness if any of the tainted water gets in her eyes. “The DNR says we can qualify for a grant [for a new well]. Why should we have to pay for something that is not a natural disaster? This is a spill somebody has to take responsibility for.”

Dan Andrae, another of the affected homeowners, said he regularly tested his two-year-old, 275-foot well.

“It never smelled like manure,” he said. “It smells like manure now. It tested bad for E.Coli and bacteria and does have a funky smell to it.”

Andrae added that even if homeowners do opt to dig new wells, that does not guarantee good water. “The only way to guarantee good water is to put in a good treatment system,” he said.

But the DNR has nothing in place for water treatment systems, and only offers a cost-share program for digging new wells.

“We want to be made whole,” Andrae said.

“You understand how slow the process works?” said Supervisor Ken Fisher, who chairs the Land Conservation Committee.

“The problem is, we can’t wait for that,” Andrae responded.

The committee also heard from John Bobbe, who lives in the neighborhood of the massive Sept. 16 manure spill at the Kurt DeGrave farm in Brussels.

Schuster pointed out that these are two very different situations, with the DeGrave spill being a mechanical failure of a valve that allowed 640,000 gallons of liquid manure to leak out of a storage tank, and the Jacksonport incident involving the application of manure that went into a large sinkhole.

“The DeGrave site got a lot of press, a heck of a lot of manure flowing, but in terms of ongoing challenges to Door County, the Jacksonport one is the much bigger topic, and it has been for a number of decades,” Schuster said.

Schuster explained that although the exact cause of the DeGrave spill is not and never will be known, there are as many as a dozen similar systems to DeGrave’s in Door County and many more throughout the state and country. Schuster wonders if the design and specifications themselves are flawed and if designers need to go back to the drawing board.

“No one has found a smoking gun, other than the speculation, professional opinion, that there must have been something jammed in that wouldn’t allow the valve to close,” Schuster said.

He added that his department will lead the charge in getting engineers to re-examine the manure storage and flow systems.

“We’re the ones to push this statewide,” he said. “It will cause a certain amount of angst among other counties.”

People need to look at the bigger picture with the Jacksonport problem, Schuster said, adding that at any given time a third of the wells in Door County are bacteriologically bad due to the thin soil and karst topography.

“I don’t care if you drill a deep or shallow well, you’re still facing the same issue,” he said. “What we can do to reduce that is do something about the impacts of the land use that’s causing the wells to go bad.”

Schuster reiterated that tainted wells have long been an issue in the county, and his department has always recommended regular well testing. “One good test is not enough,” he said.

This is not about a single sinkhole, Schuster said, but about standards. Statewide one-size-fits-all standards are not acceptable for the karst region of Door, Kewaunee, Brown and Calumet counties.

“The standards are inadequate to protect water,” Schuster said. “I’ve been saying that for years and have been criticized for years for saying it.”

He said it will take political action to get that changed, and it will be an item in the county’s 2015 Legislative Days.

While the nutrient management plans that farmers must file with Schuster’s office before spreading manure on fields are designed for plant uptake of the fertilizer, what has been lost is that they are also supposed to deal with features where manure can’t be spread.

“We need to up the quality of nutrient management plans that are being prepared,” he said.

Schuster said his department is going to crack down on nutrient management plans.

But he also suggested that since the department’s hands are tied by not being able to exceed statewide standards, landowners who rent their fields to farmers can require farmers to observe stricter standards.

“Landowners will have to take responsibility,” Schuster said. “If a famer is applying manure on your land, the law says that the owner and farmer are responsible.”

Schuster added that his department recently issued a citation to a Southern Door landowner who allowed improper spreading of some Kewaunee County manure on his property, and that another citation was recently issued to a northern Door farmer who spread too close to a sinkhole.