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Recent WI Supreme Court Cases Affirm DNR Authority to Place Permit Restrictions on Farms and High-Capacity Wells

The Wisconsin Supreme Court (Court) recently decided two cases to allow the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to place permit restrictions on large livestock farms and high-capacity wells as a way to protect Wisconsin’s water. The issue in both cases is whether DNR had the authority under Wisconsin law to issue permits with conditions. 

In both cases, the Court looked to language used in Sec. 227.10(2m) Wis. Stats. and determined that (1) agencies’ actions under administrative law need be supported by explicit, not specific, statutory or regulatory authority; and (2) that explicit authority can be broad in scope. As a result of the two decisions, DNR was given broader authority than many believed was permissible since enactment of 2011 Wisconsin Act 21 (Act 21) because the agency actions authorized by the Court are not specifically stated in the statute sections in question. The following is a summary of the two cases.   

Kinnard Farms  

In the first case, Kinnard operates a large, concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). Kinnard wanted to expand its dairy operations by building a second site and adding 3,000 dairy cows. The expansion required Kinnard to apply to DNR for reissuance of its Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (WPDES) permit to include both the original site and the proposed expansion. DNR approved the application and reissued Kinnard’s WPDES permit.  

Persons (petitioners) living near the CAFO sought review of the reissued WPDES permit because of their proximity to the farm, had private drinking wells, and were concerned the proposed expansion would exacerbate current groundwater contamination issues. The petitioners alleged that the reissued WPDES permit was inadequate because, among other things, it did not set a “maximum number of animal units” or “require monitoring to evaluate impacts to groundwater.”  

DNR granted the petitioners a contested case hearing and the matters were referred to an administrative law judge (ALJ). Kinnard filed for summary judgment alleging DNR lacked statutory authority to impose the conditions, citing Act 21. The ALJ denied the motion and conducted a four-day evidentiary hearing during which community members who lived or worked near the CAFO testified about contamination of well water and the impact the contamination had on their businesses, homes, and daily lives. Based upon evidence presented by residents and experts, the ALJ determined that DNR had “clear regulatory authority” to impose the two conditions disputed upon Kinnard’s reissued WPDES permit.  

Ultimately the matter was argued to the Court. The issue in the case involved sec. 227.10(2m), Wis. Stats., which dictates that “[n]o agency may implement or enforce any standard, requirement, or threshold…unless that standard, requirement, or threshold is explicitly required or explicitly permitted by statute or by a rule that has been promulgated in accordance with this subchapter.” (emphasis added). The parties disputed the meaning of “explicitly required or explicitly permitted” in the context of DNR imposing conditions upon Kinnard’s reissued WPDES permit.  

Kinnard asserted that explicit means specific, and that in the absence of statutory or administrative authority, DNR must first promulgate a rule in order to impose the conditions upon its reissued WPDES permit. The DNR and petitioners counter that such a reading of “explicitly required or explicitly permitted” was too narrow, and that Kinnard had overlooked the explicit, but broad, authority given to DNR in Secs. 283.31(3) – (5) Wis. Stats. to prescribe such conditions.  

The Court first looked to dictionary definitions of the term “explicit” and revised Sec. 227.10(2m) in context and determined explicit authority can be broad in scope. The court next examined the text of Secs. 283.31(3) – (5), and related regulations, to determine whether DNR had explicit authority to impose an animal unit maximum and off-site groundwater monitoring conditions upon Kinnard’s reissued WPDES permit. The Court held that while the statute sections do not specifically state an animal unit limit or off-site ground water monitoring, DNR did have explicit authority to prescribe both conditions when it reissues the WPDES permit.  

The Court determined that (1) agencies’ actions under administrative law need be supported by explicit, not specific, statutory or regulatory authority; and (2) that explicit authority can be broad in scope.   

High-Capacity Wells 

In a second case, the Court also reviewed whether Sec. 227.10(2m) Wis. Stats. allowed for DNR to consider the potential environmental effects of proposed high-capacity wells when such consideration is not required under Sec. 281.34(4) Wis. Stats.  

For some types of wells, DNR is required to follow a specific process in its environmental review of a well application. For other types of wells, a specific process is not required; however, DNR often still considers the potential environmental impact of a proposed well when considering a well application. Eight well applications in dispute in the case where the type that no specific environmental review was required. DNR did have information that the wells would negatively impact the environment. DNR approved the eight applications knowing of the wells impact having concluded it did not have the authority to consider the proposed wells’ environmental impact. 

Clean Wisconsin and the Pleasant Lake Management District (collectively, Clean Wisconsin) appealed DNR’s action arguing DNR’s decision was contrary to the Court’s decision in the Lake Beulah Management District v. DNR (2011 WI 54, 335 Wis. 2d 47, 799 N.W.2d 73) case. In Lake Beulah, the Court held that DNR had the authority and discretion to consider the environmental effects of all proposed high-capacity wells under the public trust doctrine when it determined that a proposed well would harm other waters in Wisconsin.  

DNR argued the Lake Beulah court case was no longer good law because Act 21 had since become law and the law limits an agency’s action to only those “explicitly required or explicitly permitted to state or by a rule.” The eight well applications were for the type of wells for which there was no formal environmental review under Sec. 281.34 Wis. Stats. DNR had also relied on a past Attorney General opinion which stated the agency could not rely on the public-trust authority and could not rely upon the Lake Beulah case as that would not withstand the requirements under Wis. Stats. Sec. 227.10(2m) (OAG-01-16).   

With respect to the high-capacity well applications, the Court ruled in favor of Clean Wisconsin having determined DNR has explicit authority, based upon its broad public trust authority under Secs. 281.11 and 281.22 Wis. Stats., to determine the environmental impact of high-capacity wells despite the fact that Sec. 281.34 does not specifically state such requirement. The Court’s finding reaffirmed the Court’s Lake Beulah decision despite enactment of Act 21.  

Take Away from Cases 

The interesting and concerning parts of the decisions is that after the passage of Act 21, many took the revised language of Sec. 227.10(2m) Wis. Stats. to mean that for an agency to act, the action had to be specifically stated or provided for within statutory language or administrative rule. If the action was not within such language, the agency would first have to promulgate a rule or otherwise change statutory language for the agency to take the actions desired.  

However, given how the Court has interpreted “explicit” in the two cases, that may not be the case. It is possible that because of the two Court decisions, an agency make act regardless of the action not being stated within statutory language or administrative rule. Instead, it is possible an agency may rely on its broader authority for action.  

Financial institutions should keep the decisions of the two Court cases in mind when considering whether an agency has the authority to act in a particular manner. Financial institutions should be cautious that just because an action is not specifically found within statute or rule, the action may still be authorized under a broader, explicit authority. Despite the passage of Act 21, agency action could be broad.  

As is often the case, one should read the dissenting opinions of both cases. The dissenting opinions outline the concerns of many regarding how broad an agency may act despite Act 21, despite the fact the agency’s actions were not specifically stated within statute or administrative rule in connection with reissuing an WPDES permit or when approving the type of well applications involved in the high-capacity well case, and despite the Court’s previous decision under Tetra Tech EC Inc. v. Wisconsin Dep’t of Revenue, 2018 WI 75, 373 Wis.2d 2387, 890 N.W.2d. 598. The decisions appear to give back to agencies potentially broad authority.  

Conclusion 

In both cases, the Court looked to language used in Wis. Stats. Sec. 227.10(2m) and determined that (1) agencies’ actions under administrative law need be supported by explicit, not specific, statutory or regulatory authority; and (2) that explicit authority can be broad in scope. As a result of the two decisions, DNR was given broader authority than many believed was permissible since enactment of Act 21 and Tetra Tech. Financial institutions need be aware of the Court decisions and be cautious that just because an action is not specifically found within statute or rule, the action may still be authorized under an agency’s broader, explicit authority. 

Clean Wisconsin et. Al v. Wis. Dep’t of Natural Resources, 2021 WI 71 (Kinnard Farm) decision may be viewed at: https://www.wicourts.gov/sc/opinion/DisplayDocument.pdf?content=pdf&seqNo=386188  

Clean Wisconsin and Pleasant Lake Mgmt. Dist. v. Wis. Dep’t of Natural Resources, 2021 WI 72 (High-Capacity Wells) decision may be viewed at: https://www.wicourts.gov/sc/opinion/DisplayDocument.pdf?content=pdf&seqNo=385454  

By, Ally Bates