St. Croix County residents raised concerns this week after a manure spill on a large farming operation that was fined in 2019 for a similar incident.

According to a Department of Natural Resources spill report, manure sprayed Nov. 20, 2019, at Emerald Sky Dairy ran off the property and into Hutton Creek, a Willow River tributary, where dead minnows were found downstream of “manure laden water.”

Town of Emerald resident Virginia Drath said she spotted crews on the farm assembling pipes to transfer manure from a lagoon to the fields on Nov. 19. Drath, who brought her concerns to the Jan. 7 St. Croix County Board meeting, said she notified a Department of Natural Resources specialist about the farm activity after learning rain was forecast and that frost was already up to 10 inches into the ground at that point.

“I am wondering what the heck is going on,” she said.

Wisconsin DNR officials said liquid manure spilled off property at Emerald Sky Dairy into nearby Hutton Creek Nov. 20-21. Image courtesy of Wisconsin DNR
Wisconsin DNR officials said liquid manure spilled off property at Emerald Sky Dairy into nearby Hutton Creek Nov. 20-21. Image courtesy of Wisconsin DNR

The Wisconsin Manure Management System Advisory System, a program run by the state’s Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection, provides 72-hour forecasts for conditions and the risk of manure runoff.

The risk level listed for Nov. 20 for all of St. Croix County was “severe,” which indicates frozen soil or snow.

DNR Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations specialist Jeff Jackson went to Emerald Sky Dairy on Nov. 20 and inspected the operation, which was spreading at a rate of about 12,000 gallons per acre. The manure was being applied to an approximately 42-acre field, according to the DNR.

Jackson submitted an audit report from Nov. 20 that noted the manure appeared to be migrating downfield.

He told the dairy to reduce its application and to till the field’s boundary and low-lying areas.

“The dairy agreed to the request and immediately reduced application rates,” the audit report states.

The area received about 0.38 inches of precipitation between Nov. 20-21, with temperatures falling as low as 30 degrees.

In an interview with RiverTown Multimedia, Jackson said conditions in the field were “stiff,” but not frozen. He said the contributing factors to the spill appeared to be the firm ground conditions and the rain.

Jackson said that while he advises farmers of the state’s Manure Management System Advisory System, he can’t control their actions.

“Ultimately, it’s up to them on when they spread,” he said.

While farms aren’t allowed to spread manure within 24 hours of a forecast rain event that could cause a runoff issue, Jackson said “that’s kind of hard to define until it happens.” He said a half-inch rainfall in July would generally have less runoff impact than one in April or November.

And while his job is to provide farmers with information, Jackson said it’s not his call on whether they can spread or not.

“They have to make their business decision on whether they’re going to spread that day,” he said.

Emerald Sky Dairy officials could not be reached for comment.

'Brown, turbid and smelled of manure'

The following day — Nov. 21 — an anonymous person reported manure flowing down the County Road G ditch along the farm’s boundary.

Jackson returned to Emerald Sky Dairy, where he spoke with the farm’s compliance manager. Later that morning, the dairy had a septic hauler remove manure-infested water from the ditch; farm officials also ran tilling passes along the field to help drive the manure and stormwater into the soil. Jackson said those measures likely stemmed additional runoff contamination.

Jackson and DNR game wardens then inspected the ditch along County Road G.

This Wisconsin DNR image shows the path of contaminated stormwater that made its way to a St. Croix County creek in November 2019. Cleanup measures taken by the property owner, Emerald Sky Dairy, are also listed. Image courtesy of Wisconsin DNR
This Wisconsin DNR image shows the path of contaminated stormwater that made its way to a St. Croix County creek in November 2019. Cleanup measures taken by the property owner, Emerald Sky Dairy, are also listed. Image courtesy of Wisconsin DNR

The wardens “noted manure laden water flowing down a grass waterway and entered the CTH G road ditch,” according to Jackson’s spill report. They tracked the flow to Hutton Creek.

The contaminated water entering the creek “was brown, turbid and smelled of manure,” the report states.

“There was also an abundance of white foam developing at the confluence of the road ditch channel and Hutton Creek,” according to Jackson’s report.

DNR officials found four species of forage minnows, about 24 in all, dead about 10 meters downstream of the County Road G bridge.

A fisheries official from the DNR performed a fish-kill investigation near several bridges including 160th Avenue, 250th Street, 170th Avenue and County Road O.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources officials said central mud minnows, fathead minnows, creek chubs and brook sticklebacks were found dead in contaminated water after a Nov. 20, 2019, manure runoff incident in St. Croix County. Image courtesy of Wisconsin DNR
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources officials said central mud minnows, fathead minnows, creek chubs and brook sticklebacks were found dead in contaminated water after a Nov. 20, 2019, manure runoff incident in St. Croix County. Image courtesy of Wisconsin DNR

Laboratory analysis revealed contamination in the ditch that included phosphorus levels of 14.8 milligrams per liter. Jackson said the acceptable level is about 0.75 milligrams per liter.

The report states no additional fish-kill or stream impairments were detected during the investigation, which lasted through Nov. 26.

Jackson said the November spill remains an active investigation and that any enforcement action would likely be months away. Prior incidents on a farm can be taken into consideration as part of an investigation, he said.

Previous spill

The spill was not the first at Emerald Sky Dairy.

Sometime from Dec. 9 through Dec. 19, 2016, a failure in the pumping system at Emerald Sky Dairy caused a spill of up to 275,000 gallons of liquid manure, according to a report by Ecosystems, LLC.

According to the complaint filed in a St. Croix County civil case, the spill was discovered Dec. 19, 2016. The spill went unreported until March 29, 2017.

“Significant adverse impact to the wetland took place when it was inundated with manure to such depths that is toxic to plant life,” a DNR wetland identification specialist wrote in his report on a follow-up inspection in April 2018. “The inundation of the wetland surfaces created a harmful or toxic environment, because wetland plant life could not grow or uptake nutrients. The inundation replaces those functioning processes.”

The amount of pollutants discharged into the wetlands “can be assumed to have a detrimental impact” on the water quality and aquatic life in affected areas, the report states.

A May 2019 judgment in a civil lawsuit against the dairy resulted in an $80,000 fine.

“From December 19, 2016 until March 31, 2017, Emerald Sky Dairy took no reasonable steps to minimize or prevent adverse impacts to the wetlands impacted by the manure discharge,” the complaint states.

The manure transfer line carried roughly 20,000-30,000 gallons of manure daily, the complaint states, and the spill lasted from roughly Dec. 9 to Dec. 19, 2016.

“If Emerald Sky Dairy had been inspecting its liquid storage and containment structures as required by the WPDES permit, Emerald Sky Dairy would have noticed hundreds of thousands of gallons of manure were missing,” the complaint states. “Upon making this discovery, a reasonable operator would have investigated and likely discovered the leaking manure transfer pipe earlier, mitigating the magnitude of the manure discharge.”

The dairy made its first payment of $16,000 in September 2019, with subsequent payments of $16,000 scheduled annually through 2023.