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Editorial Manure Manger: January-February 2014

Crying over spilt manure

January 20, 2014  by  Marg Land

The state of Wisconsin has been abuzz with talk of fish kills and phosphorus pollution since the Nov. 24 accidental release of 300,000 gallons of manure from a Dane County anaerobic digester. The cause – a ruptured pipe that went undetected for several hours.

It’s unknown how much of the manure entered Six Mile Creek, which feeds into Lake Mendota. Obviously, some did as the manure was travelling through drainage ditches, but according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources, no fish kills have been observed. Dane County’s conservationist says that in the three days following the spill, phosphorus levels reached 30 pounds in the creek, well below the 4,400 pounds that has been recorded in the past following a heavy rain.

While the spill was a large one – according to newspaper reports, at one point the manure travelled more than one mile from the site – digester operator PPC Partners plus numerous neighboring farmers and contractors worked as quickly as possible to berm the spill and vacuum and scrape the escaped manure. The digester even continued to operate during the incident as the spill was isolated to only one of the installation’s three tanks. Manure is supplied to the digester by three area dairy farms.

Within days of the spill, newspapers across the state were full of alarmist headlines – “Manure spills in 2013 the highest in seven years statewide” (Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel) – and critical editorials and opinion pieces – “Fault for manure spill goes beyond digester” (The Cap Times).


Hats off to manure management experts who tried their best to keep things in perspective. As University of Wisconsin Extension manure specialist Kevin Erb explained to the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, the amount of manure spilled in Wisconsin during 2013 – estimated at more than one million gallons – is very small; in fact, it constitutes less than one percent of all the manure produced by dairy cattle in the state.

No farmer, custom operator or digester operator wants a spill to happen. But, as University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture and Life Sciences senior associate dean Richard J. Straub told one reporter: “Manure happens.

“We take these things seriously, but there is no system that is absolutely safe.”

Anaerobic digesters were developed not only to produce energy – the Dane County facility produces enough power for 2,500 homes – but also to provide a way of processing dairy manure to protect against runoff and water pollution. It is disappointing that an accident involving this technology has resulted in such a spill. But people shouldn’t forget this was an accident, not an intentional act.

Charlie Talbert, board president of the Alliance for Animals and the Environment, wrote an opinion article for The Cap Times blaming the three dairy farms supplying the Dane County digester for the spill.

“Factory farms are the cause of this spill,” he writes. “Two of the three principal dairy operations that pipe poop to the Waunakee manure digester are designated CAFOs by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.”

Later in his article he urges people to “consider purchasing fewer dairy and other animal products.”

There is much to be learned from this unfortunate accident and blaming an entire industry for it seems a bit heavy handed. Already changes are being discussed, including automatic shut-off valves and a more robust alarm system. A second digester in the county, which should be online by now, has been constructed with a 15-million-gallon storage structure that can receive manure in case of a spill.


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