Page 2 of 2 Previous
The forest, much of it commercial timberland, has long protected the water in the region; as long as the land is 75 percent trees, ground and surface waters will remain pristine, said John Ringle, Cass County’s environmental director.
But the aquifer and the sandy soils also make the land ideal for potatoes. However, they require fertilizers and regular pesticide and fungicide treatments, and frequent irrigation that can wash those chemicals down through the sand and into the groundwater.
Decades of fertilizer use in neighboring agricultural regions are starting to produce dangerous results in local drinking water. In Park Rapids, located in the potato and corn region of southwest Hubbard County, water is showing rising levels of nitrates from nitrogen fertilizer, which can cause a potentially lethal condition in infants called blue baby syndrome. Park Rapids plans to install new, deeper wells and a water treatment plant that will cost $2 million.
McGovern, who testified for Offutt at the legislative hearing, said the company has a vested interest in minimizing chemical use and is required by McDonald’s and other buyers to use environmentally friendly farming practices. Offutt is also working with Park Rapids to reduce fertilizer use around city wells.
“As a steward of the land, I need to do everything I can to prohibit transfer of nitrogen into aquifers, and I believe I’m doing that,” he said.
But when Wagenius asked whether Offutt should pay for the cost of contaminated drinking water, he said the source of contamination is not clear.
“Do you believe you have responsibility for nitrogen showing up in those wells?” she asked.
“I’m not the right person to answer that question,” he said.
Even the best farm management is unlikely to protect the sensitive aquifer, state officials said — a point Wagenius made directly in a letter to McDonald’s, challenging its claims of following environmentally friendly policies.
“[This] method of growing potatoes … cannot avoid contaminating the groundwater or wasting natural resources on this particular converted forest land,” she wrote.
McDonald’s officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which gave Offutt temporary permits to irrigate, will monitor its water use and the impact on nearby surface water and wells, said Darrin Hoverson, a DNR hydrologist.
But despite the rising amount of land conversion, the state has never denied a permit because of potential risk, Hoverson said. “That may be something for the future,” he said.
Meanwhile, both the state and Cass County are seeking funding from the 2008 Legacy Amendment to buy Potlatch land before it’s sold to others. DNR officials said they have identified 11,000 acres of ecologically valuable land in the Pineland Sands region that the agency would like to protect.
They’re asking for $4.2 million in taxpayer money to buy 2,000 of them.
Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394