Lawsuit filed, voluntary agreement reached after contaminated water found in central sands region

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(WSAW) -- After people living in Wood and Juneau counties learned last summer it was unsafe for them to drink their water because of nitrate contamination, they have been looking for answers and help. Now, a lawsuit against large farms in the area has been filed on residents' behalf, and a voluntary agreement between the farms, one of the counties, and Department of Natural Resources has been signed.

Testing done by Wood and Juneau counties' health departments, DNR, EPA, and a researcher at UW-Stevens Point in May and throughout the summer of 2018 found chemicals from farms in the central sands area seeped down through the sandy soil into the groundwater that flowed to private wells.

Attorneys from Habush Habush & Rottier and Pines Bach approached residents in September offering them the opportunity to join a lawsuit against the farms blamed for the contamination, Central Sands Dairy and Wysocki Produce Farm. The lawsuit was filed in November with 81 families signing on.

In short, the lawsuit claims the families participating in the suit have suffered health problems including cancers, miscarriage, thyroid disease, congenital abnormalities, and adverse reproductive outcomes among other things. The suit alleges these health issues were the result of the practices the farms knew, or should have known were harmful.

It also claims the farms lied about the environmental impact of some their practices, including in 2007 when they told residents "that their cropping practices would 'improve the quality of soil and water of the central sands area;' their waste disposal practices would not pollute the environment; a manure digester would keep their neighborhood footprint small; they would achieve reduced nitrate leaching; and odors form the facility would be minimal."

The lawsuit asks that the farms stop their practices through an injunction to prevent more harm, compensation for damages, and that the case be tried before a jury.

Following the testing results released earlier in the summer, the farms created the Armenia Growers Coalition. The coalition approached the counties and DNR with a memorandum. With recommendations from the EPA and roughly a dozen meetings worth of negotiations and changes, the coalition, Wood County, and DNR came to a voluntary agreement in December, meaning nothing is binding. Wood County Health Department Environmental Health and Communicable Disease Supervisor Nancy Eggleston said the agreement was not as strong as it first was presented, but it is helping those affected who have no other options.

"In that agreement, we're looking at a couple of things, one is how to protect people now that have impacted water already," she said.

The agreement states the coalition will pay for systems to reduce the nitrate levels and remove pesticides. They will also provide bottled water to residents who take up the offer. The opportunity is first being offered to the roughly 40 residents tested in the first round of studies done. Eggleston said she knows of about a dozen homes who have taken the offer.

The offer, however, has issues. Some of these homes have higher levels of nitrates than any approved system can filter out. A system is in the process of being approved with the Department of Safety and Professional Services to be able to filter higher levels of nitrates. There also can be costly preparation work ahead of putting in the system that home owners cannot afford depending on the home.

The lawsuit also references this offer of putting in systems, saying the coalition did not offer to pay for maintenance cost of these systems, filters, or "follow-up testing to ensure that the systems are working properly."

In the agreement, the coalition also contracted with a consulting firm and private lab to do additional testing in the affected area that has not already been tested (including 576 homes). The testing is scheduled to start in 2019. Eggleston is encouraging homeowners to participate in the testing because the results will be shared with the county.

"The letters that went out asked people to participate and we are very interested in having people do so because this is the only way we're going to have a really good picture of the extent of the contamination," she said.

The coalition also is giving Wood County $25,000 upfront to compensate for the additional workload the health department will incur. The agreement states up to $25,000 in additional payment will be provided should the department go beyond the first payment be used up before the agreement ends.

As part of the agreement, the DNR will also conduct a two-year groundwater study and create a 3-D distribution map to see where residents can get clean water over the next 25 years if the land use stays the same. It also would be used to create scenarios and recommendations of land use changes that would make the groundwater safe.

Currently, the agreement states the DNR and the coalition will "work together to secure funds to cover the of the study estimated at $225,000, and, if necessary, the counties may be asked to contribute toward those costs."

The farmers involved in the coalition and any additional farmers who want to work with the DNR and counties will lead a two-year program to evaluate the impacts of current agricultural practices in that area and look for ways farming practices can change to reduce the nitrogen in the groundwater.

Juneau County is expected to sign the agreement as well this month.

Eggleston said Juneau County also gave Wood County $20,000 to provide a lab to test nitrate levels. She said they find out Friday if the DNR will certify the lab for the testing.

7 Investigates reached out to the farms involved, but they have not yet responded.