MILWAUKEE (AP) — The Wisconsin Supreme Court is scheduled to rule Wednesday in a case in which a small town with three times as many cows as people is seeking greater authority to protect its water supply.
Communities throughout the rural Midwest have been keeping an eye on the lawsuit as they struggle to deal with the expansion of so-called factory farms. States throughout the farm belt have seen big farms get bigger as the agriculture industry continues to consolidate.
The Wisconsin lawsuit was filed by Magnolia, a town of 1,000 residents seeking to force a big livestock farm to meet tougher water quality standards than the state requires. Similar cases have been filed in six other Midwestern states, but this is believed to be the first to reach a state supreme court.
The lawsuit revolves around a 2004 state law establishing standards that local governments must follow when they grant permits for new and expanding livestock operations. The intent was to make farm regulations consistent across the state.
Larson Acres Inc. applied for a permit in 2006 to expand its operation in Magnolia, which is about 30 miles south of the state capital of Madison. At the time, the farm had 1,000 cows. It now has 2,900.
The town's experts tested water near the farm and found elevated nitrate levels, which they considered evidence of pollution from manure produced by the cows. So the town granted Larson Acre's permit to expand, but with additional conditions. For example, 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.
Farm officials appealed to a board run by the state's agriculture department, arguing the town was exceeding its authority. Larson Acres claims the 2004 law prevents the town from imposing conditions that aren't required by the state.
The case pingponged through the courts for five years, and in the most recent ruling, an appeals court backed the farm. The town then appealed to the state Supreme Court.
At a hearing in September, Larson Acres attorney Eric McLeod told the justices that a town could introduce its own water quality regulations, just not as part of the permit-granting process. For example, Magnolia could monitor drinking water for nitrates and then sue the farm if pollution levels rose above certain limits, he said.
But Dela Ends, an organic farmer who lives a few miles from Larson Acres, called that logic ridiculous. She said it makes more sense to impose regulations from the beginning, than to wait for a water supply to be polluted and then seek remedies.
Similar cases have been filed in Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio and Oklahoma. Two juries in Missouri have handed out multimillion-dollar awards to homeowners who complained of intolerable odors from so-called factory farms.
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.
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