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Manure driving Wisconsin push to prosecute journalists

In this Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019 photo, members of a Lafayette County committee discuss a resolution during a meeting in Darlington, Wis., to discipline county officials who speak about water quality studies without permission. The southwestern Wisconsin county council on Tuesday dropped a proposal to prosecute journalists over their reporting on a water quality study but could still decide to discipline any county officials who talk about the research without government approval.

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Behind all the anger and indignation over a southwestern Wisconsin board’s attempts to control reports on a well water study is a simple story about manure.

Lafayette County officials tried to stifle discussion about upcoming results from the study, which has already determined a handful of area wells are contaminated with fecal matter. They came up with a resolution that called for prosecuting journalists who report on study results without publishing information from the county verbatim.

The resolution also warned that county board members who speak to reporters about findings without permission from a review board would be punished. The proposal left advocates of open government and experts in media law aghast and drew national headlines.

The county board ultimately tabled the resolution during a contentious meeting Tuesday night. But the study is far from over and its implications still weigh heavily on the area’s farmers and well owners. The findings could play a key role in whether state regulators decide to impose costly manure-spreading restrictions in the region.

“I think acknowledging that our wells are bad is just difficult emotionally,” said Kriss Marion, a Lafayette County Board member who opposed the resolution. “As much as you hate regulation, don’t you want to know what the situation is?”

Conservation officials in Grant, Lafayette and Iowa counties approached the University of Wisconsin System in 2018 and asked for help in determining the extent of well contamination in their region. Ken Bradbury, state geologist and director of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey at UW-Extension, said the officials were motivated by similar research that determined a third of the wells in Kewaunee County in northeastern Wisconsin, on the other side of the state, had unsafe levels of nitrates and bacteria.

Grant, Lafayette and Iowa counties lie in what’s known as the Driftless Area, a region that went untouched by glaciers. The area is lined with ancient bluffs and ravines as well as porous soil susceptible to contamination.

Bradbury’s group along with federal researchers sampled 301 wells in November 2018 and 539 wells in April. They found that 42% of the wells tested in November and 27% of the April wells showed evidence of bacterial contamination or nitrate pollution. Nitrate originates from manure and fertilizer.

The researchers tested 35 of those wells and found 32, or 91%, were contaminated with fecal matter from both human and livestock sources. They plan to test three more 35-well subsets over the next year.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Natural Resources in September took the first steps toward drafting manure and fertilizer restrictions for “sensitive areas” with highly permeable soil in response to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers declaring 2019 the “Year of Clean Drinking Water.” The DNR hasn’t defined those areas yet but environmentalists have been pushing to include southwestern Wisconsin on the list.

The agricultural industry has pushed back, saying the regulations could force farmers to rent or buy more land for spreading manure or to turn to expensive methods to deal with manure, such as injecting it directly into the ground. The DNR has estimated the rules could come with an annual total cost ranging from $50,000 to $5 million for stakeholders, including farmers and supporting businesses.

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“I think there’s an assumption (the study could lead to more regulation),” said Grant County Board Chairman Robert Keeney. “It’s not just farmers. I think there’s an anxiety about well structure, anxiety about private outdoor waste treatment facilities, anxiety about CAFOs (factory farms).”

When media reports of the first round of testing results surfaced in September, Lafayette County officials felt headlines inaccurately conveyed that 91% of southwestern Wisconsin wells were contaminated. The officials alleged that someone had leaked false information to the media.

A resolution appeared in the county clerk’s office last week declaring that only the three county chairmen would be allowed to speak about any further study results. Journalists who report on the results without quoting a county news release verbatim would be prosecuted under the resolution and any county board members caught speaking to the press without permission from a review board would face discipline.

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It’s not clear who authored it. The county board met Tuesday to vote on the resolution despite media law experts and open government advocates warning members that the measure was unconstitutional and bad policy.

The meeting fell apart as opponents questioned where the resolution came from and asked the board to drop it. Chairman Jack Sauer, a farmer, told critics he has been spending 16 hours a day in the fields and was “tired of your crap.” The board ultimately tabled the resolution.

Sauer didn’t return phone messages seeking comment.

People in Lafayette County should embrace the study, Marion said.

“What an awesome opportunity for this county to have experts looking at our water,” she said. “Can we base regulation on this? Yeah. But we can get out in front of it and educate people.”

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/trichmond1

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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