Opponents of a proposed hog feedlot in Fillmore County may not get the full environmental review they’re demanding, but one thing is clear: They’ve got the attention of the state’s top pollution official.
John Linc Stine, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, traveled Tuesday night to Mabel, Minn., near the Iowa border, to address neighbors’ concerns at a rare second informational meeting on the Catalpa Ag feedlot.
Facing about 250 people packed into the town’s community center, some wearing bright yellow stickers and T-shirts saying EIS YES in support of the environmental-impact statement, Stine acknowledged the existing nitrate contamination in Fillmore County’s drinking water. He called it a serious concern.
“The sensitivity of the groundwater in this county to action on the surface of the ground is high,” he said. “It’s a very vulnerable place.
“You want to know who is going to heal these wounds to the groundwater.”
Stine said he was there to listen to the community and learn. He said he’ll make the decisions on the permit and whether to order a full environmental review by the end of the year.
More than two dozen residents also spoke, many expressing their desire to protect the livability of their community.
Dayna Burtness, a hog farmer and member of Responsible Agriculture in Karst Country, called the two follow-on studies the MPCA requested “an embarrassment.”
“Please order an EIS as soon as possible. It’s not only what’s required of you by law, it’s the right thing to do,” she said.
Vance Haugen, who milks 150 dairy cows near the site of the proposed feedlot, said there are sinkholes and a disappearing stream on his land. The karst terrain is fragile, he said: “We don’t get a do-over.”
Another area resident expressed concern about unprecedented flooding in the area. Stine acknowledged the floods are “coming with greater frequency” with climate change.
The proposed farrowing operation in Newburg Township, with nearly 5,000 pigs, has become a regional flash point, generating an unusual level of public interest partly because of the area’s sensitive, porous geology. In addition, the area’s groundwater is already contaminated.
Opponents want Stine’s agency to order a full environmental review, known as an environmental-impact statement, which would be unusual for a Minnesota feedlot.
If ever there was a reason for the state to order one for an animal feedlot, this is it, say members of Responsible Agriculture , a local citizen’s group that formed in opposition to the project.
The agency has until the end of the year to decide. Stine, meanwhile, steps down on Jan. 7.
An environmental-impact statement can take months and cost tens of thousands of dollars, expenses borne by the party proposing the project.
Al Hein, the Fillmore County farmer who wants to build the swine operation, told the crowd his team has complied with all of the MPCA requests to assure the groundwater and air quality would be protected.
“Our community is very important to us,” Hein told them. “We all drink the same water, we all breathe the same air.”
The crowd grew impatient.
“Five thousand hogs though?” someone called out during his remarks.
Hein’s family is the majority holder in Catalpa Ag, which wants to build the feedlot on the farm where Hein and his wife live. The piglet operation would be managed by Waukon Feed Ranch, an Iowa company that manages hog farms in three states. The project will create jobs and generate organic fertilizer for his fields, Hein said.
Concerned citizens say the risk of groundwater contamination and other environmental damage is too high. They’ve waged protests at MPCA offices, and hundreds attended the first information meeting in Mabel, in June. The proposal has also generated a record number of public comment letters.
The outpouring led the agency to delay its decision on the in-depth environmental review, request two additional reports on the karst geology of the area, reopen the proposal for another round of comments and hold the second public meeting to discuss the findings of the additional reports.
Those two additional studies suggested there are no active sinkholes forming at the site. Two scientists, however, have disputed those findings.
This part of southeastern Minnesota is known for its karst geology, where the unusually porous rock and plethora of sink holes means that waste from feedlots, or from fields where manure is used as fertilizer, can rapidly seep into underground drinking water sources. The porous rock also increases the risk of damage if a manure basin fails.
Already, an estimated 15 percent of the private wells in Fillmore County exceed the safe drinking water standard for nitrate, a chemical associated with fertilizer and livestock manure. That’s higher than most parts of the state.
The Catalpa Ag project wouldn’t be Minnesota’s largest hog farm. But it would be the largest animal feedlot of any kind in Fillmore County in terms of animal units — a measure that takes into account the size of the hogs and the amount of manure they produce. The pigs would produce an estimated 7.3 million gallons of liquid manure a year.
State law requires an EIS for a project “where there is potential for significant environmental effects.”
Worried neighbors and the Land Stewardship Project, a nonprofit advocacy group, say it’s clear the Catalpa Ag project would have significant environmental effects.
However, state administrative rules spell out four criteria for answering that question, and agency officials say they follow the rules rigorously.
The agency has ordered an EIS on an animal feedlot only once, as far as staff can recall, and that was via its now-defunct Citizens’ Advisory Board, not through staff employees.
Agency staff have sometimes indicated to farmers that an EIS might be necessary for their feedlots, spokeswoman Cathy Rofshus said, but the full reviews were never ordered because the project backers changed or withdrew their proposals.