Wisconsin Supreme Court Factory Farm Decision a Victory for Clean Water

Decision slams the brakes on the drive to use Act 21 to thwart common sense regulations


Food System

Today, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the state’s regulatory agencies are explicitly empowered to protect public health and welfare, regardless of whether the state legislature  specifically outlined such measures.

The case before the court, Clean Wisconsin v. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (“DNR”), involved a challenge to permit conditions that authorized the expansion of a large factory farm in Kewaunee County. Residents and local groups had successfully pressed for a stronger permit that would monitor groundwater quality and limit the number of animals at the facility.  The factory farm owner and the Wisconsin Legislature opposed these efforts, arguing in part that Wisconsin’s Act 21 dramatically limited the authority of state agencies to only those standards or conditions specifically considered and enumerated by the legislature.

Today’s ruling supports the position of the local groups (see this release from the Midwest Environmental Advocates), and finds that Act 21 does not inhibit the Department of Natural Resources from enacting policies that protect natural resources and communities from the effects of pollution. A ruling otherwise would have severely hamstrung state agencies in their abilities to protect public health and welfare.

In April, the Supreme Court accepted an amicus brief filed by Food & Water Watch on behalf of environmental, public health, and sustainable farming advocates, who argued that Wisconsin law and common sense empower state agencies to protect the public health and welfare from pollution caused by factory farms (otherwise known as CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations). 

“The court’s decision affirms a simple fact: state agencies have the authority to protect the public from factory farm pollution,” said Tyler Lobdell, staff attorney with Food & Water Watch. “Kinnard Farms and members of the state legislature sought to rewrite the law to prohibit common sense protections, despite ongoing pollution of the environment and people’s drinking water. Today’s decision will have far reaching effects for a range of environmental protection measures across Wisconsin.”