MADISON – A Kewaunee County farmer and a manure hauler have been charged with filing fraudulent documents and allowing so much manure to flow into nearby tributaries to Lake Michigan that levels of bacteria reached more than 400 times the state limit.
Wakker Dairy owner Johannes Wakker, Stodola Ag Transport owner Gregory Stodola and crop consultant Benjamin Koss were charged with eight counts of conspiracy to commit a crime, fraudulent writing and discharging pollutants into waters of the state after spreading millions of gallons of manure from the farm on surrounding land.
So much manure was spread that tributaries leading to Lake Michigan had E. coli readings hundreds of times higher than the levels that would result in the closure of a public beach, according to a press release.
According to a criminal complaint, the DNR investigated several reports of manure discharges by Wakker Dairy between 2017 and 2020.
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, are regulated by the Department of Natural Resources and are required to submit records related to routine manure-spreading or other discharges.
In 2019, the farm had too much manure stored in its holding facilities and began applying the manure to fields, despite the fact that recent rains had saturated the ground in the area, increasing the likelihood of manure running into nearby bodies of water. Instead of spreading the manure, the farm could have paid to have it stored elsewhere, but chose not to, the complaint says. Wakker hired Stodola to do the spreading.
An investigation found that Stodola overapplied the manure and then falsified documents to cover up the overapplication, the complaint says, resulting in 3 million gallons of unaccounted-for manure being spread. Investigators found that the falsified numbers were given to Wakker, who turned them over to Koss for submission to the DNR.
According to the complaint:
Despite reporting to the DNR that he had spread a smaller amount of manure, Stodola still billed Wakker for the full amount, and Wakker was aware of the overapplication, but still used the falsified numbers in other documents.
After the false numbers were given to Wakker, they were passed along to Koss, who admitted to further changing the manure metrics before submitting them to the DNR, in an effort to “calibrate the books,” and fit the amount of manure spread to what was allowed by permits.
Investigators looking into the overapplication were able to find a host of documents showing the conflicting numbers, according to the complaint, including Stodola’s hauling notes, his daily hauling log, invoices and a document containing the false manure metrics Stodola sent to Wakker.
Attorney General Josh Kaul filed the charges against the three individuals Friday in Kewaunee County.
“Our environmental laws and regulations are important safeguards protecting cleanwater for Wisconsinites, and those who are required to report to DNR must provideaccurate information,” Kaul said in a press release about the charges.
Wakker, Stodola and Koss are scheduled to appear in Kewaunee County Circuit Court on Jan. 12.
This isn’t the first time Wakker Dairy has faced penalties for overapplying manure.
In April, Wakker was fined $225,000 for the overapplication of manure on several occasions, according to a WBAY report, including 20 occasions of manure running into a stream or wetland, 11 occasions of manure ponding after application, and one occasion of spreading manure too close to navigable water, among other violations.
The settlement in that case was approved by the Joint Finance Committee on April 13.
Kewaunee County home to a number of ‘factory farms’
Kewaunee County, in northeastern Wisconsin, is home to 16 industrial farms and has been struggling with agricultural pollution for years after testing showed levels of contaminants in residents’ private drinking wells.
The county is also home to Kinnard Farms, one of Wisconsin’s largest dairy farms.
Kinnard has been embroiled in a battle with local residents and the DNR over its permits, which were updated earlier this year to include a cap of 11,369 animal units, or about 8,000 cows, which is the number the farm currently houses. The updated permit also mandated that Kinnard install monitoring wells at some of the fields it uses for spreading manure, in order to measure the impact the fertilizer is having on the groundwater.
While residents saw the requirements as a win, Kinnard sued DNR over them in April, saying the animal cap would cause the farm to lose revenue and that the monitoring wells will cost too much money.
Kewaunee is one of a number of Wisconsin counties facing water quality issues due to the overapplication of manure and other fertilizers utilized by agriculture. A study released earlier this year found that manure and fertilizer levels exceeded recommended limits by 50% in some places, putting nearby residents and water at risk.
Environmental groups say that overapplication could be avoided if there was less reliance on self-reporting and a more comprehensive look at how much manure is actually being produced by the CAFOs throughout the state.
“The type of overspreading and fraud alleged in the complaint are the inevitable result of a regulatory system that relies too heavily on self-reporting,” said Peg Sheaffer, the director of communications for Midwest Environmental Advocates. “It’s critical that we prioritize funding for CAFO oversight and enforcement so that those who falsify records are held accountable.”