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Friday, February 20, 2015

MaryBeth Matzek: Ruling raises farmer liability concerns


By MaryBeth Matzek
It's been more than six weeks since the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled manure that makes its way into the water supply is considered a pollutant, but there's still little guidance on what that may mean for the state's farmers.

The court ruling stemmed from a 2011 case against a farm near West Bend that had 600 cows. In that case, Robert and Jane Falk were notified by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources that their manure spreading activities led to well contamination. The couple turned to its insurance company, Wilson Mutual, to handle the claims filed against them by neighbors who said their water supplies were damaged. Wilson Mutual cited an exclusion for damage caused by pollutants and said it was therefore not responsible. In ruling that manure found in drinking water is a pollutant, the court let Wilson Mutual off the hook for the bulk of the filed claims.

In ruling that manure can be a pollutant, the court sent shockwaves through the farming community, said Elizabeth Wheeler, an attorney with Clean Wisconsin, a Madison-based non-profit focused on environmental protection. She thinks the ruling will put more attention on nutrient management plans. In Wisconsin, farms with more than 1,000 animal units or roughly 700 cows are required to file nutrient management plans with the state. Those plans spell out how much and when manure can be spread on farmland.

"Farmers don't think they are polluting. They think are just fertilizing their fields," she said. "Most farmers follow their nutrient plans and we really view it as a best practice that all farms have a plan in place for dealing with their manure."

Bill Schuster, head of Door County's Soil and Water Conservation Department, said farms of all sizes need to pay closer attention to their nutrient management plans.

"It doesn't matter if a farm has 250 cows or 1,200 cows – their waste can still wind up in the water and all farms need a plan in how to deal with it," he said.

Wheeler said the December ruling focused on liability issues so she's taking a "wait-and-see approach" to what may happen next.

Schuster thinks people who rent out their land to farmers may be most at risk since they could face a lawsuit if anything spread on their land winds up in the water supply.

"The landowners may be more likely to seek liability coverage in case something happens with the manure spread on their land," he said.

WMEP's impact

As manufacturers from around Wisconsin gather next Thursday in Milwaukee for the annual Manufacturing Matters conference, industry leaders have plenty to celebrate.

Manufacturing – which makes up the state's largest employment sector – added more than 9,300 jobs between July 2013 and July 2014, placing it fifth in the nation for manufacturing job growth.

With all the positive statistics, there's one Buckley Brinkman, executive director and chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership, is especially proud of. Since WMEP started in 1998, its efforts with clients led to $3.1 billion in economic impact. Brinkman estimated that about 4,000 Wisconsin companies have been helped through WMEP services.

"Crossing the $3 billion milestone is a tribute to more than 15 years of focus on aligning multiple organizations, talents and energy to make the Wisconsin manufacturing environment the best in the world," he said.

WMEP, a private, non-profit consulting organization, provides a variety of services to help small and midsize manufacturers develop and implement plans that foster growth, increased profitability and improved global competitiveness. For example, it helps businesses looking at entering foreign markets or those looking at lean initiatives.

Hospitals improve quality

The Wisconsin Hospital Association recently issued a report showing the progress that 108 state hospitals made in 2014 to reduce avoidable hospital readmissions, decrease infections and prevent medication errors. The hospitals working with the WHA estimate they have improved care for more than 9,000 patients in the past three years and avoided more than $87 million in health costs. There are 32 other Wisconsin hospitals working with other improvement initiatives.

One area that is particularly important to patients is the prevention of hospital-acquired infections. Central line-associated blood stream infections (CLABSI) are among the most serious and often lead to extended stays in the Intensive Care Unit or place a patient at risk of death. Since 2008, Wisconsin hospitals have reduced those infections by 71 percent by standardizing best practices and with real-time monitoring, the WHA says.

Read the full report

-- Matzek, a freelance writer and editor, is the owner of 1Bizzy Writer. She has worked in the past as a news editor at Insight Publications and as business editor at the Appleton Post-Crescent.

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