A swine feedlot proposed for Fillmore County in southeastern Minnesota has generated such intense local reaction that state regulators have reopened the period for public comments and, in an unusual step, scheduled a second public meeting to air new environmental research.

"In my 10 years with the agency, this is the first time I've done a second public information meeting for the same project," said Catherine Rofshus, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).

The proposed swine farrowing operation, with 4,890 pigs, wouldn't be huge by Minnesota standards; the state's largest swine feedlot has five times that number.

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 produced — and it would be located in a region of the state where concerns about groundwater contamination are particularly keen.

Fillmore County is karst country, with unusually porous rock and sink holes, which means that animal manure from feedlots or the fields where the manure is injected as fertilizer can seep down into drinking water very quickly, even within hours.

The feedlot's size is unprecedented for Fillmore County, said Barb Sogn-Frank, factory farm policy organizer for the Land Stewardship Project, a nonprofit advocacy group.

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 areas in the state.

Wrestling with growing concerns over the effects of large animal feedlots on the surrounding communities, the MPCA has been rethinking how it engages with the public, Rofshus said.

"We have heard loud and clear, they want to hear about proposals sooner and they want to know more."

In June, more than 300 people flocked to the MPCA's first public meeting on the pig project, held in the community center in Mabel, Minn. Many local residents are demanding that the agency order a full environmental review, called an environmental-impact statement (EIS), and wore yellow T-shirts reading "EIS YES." Opponents have also protested at MPCA offices in St. Paul.

The MPCA received 771 comment letters in the first comment period — a record for the agency.

Al Hein, a Fillmore County farmer whose family is the majority shareholder in Catalpa Ag, the company behind the feedlot, said he thinks his family's piglet project has been misinterpreted. Talking from his combine as he harvested corn, Hein said his family has lived and farmed in the area for 65 years. He and his wife live on the site where the pig facilities would be built, and his two daughters live within half a mile. The manure is better, and more sustainable than commercial fertilizer, he said.

"Our family views this project as a way to make our farm sustainable and protect our soil and water," Hein said. "Nothing can replace organic matter in our soils providing plant nutrients."

In an e-mail, he accused the opposition of "spreading misinformation and promoting fear mongering."

Hein said he sees no reason to conduct an EIS. "We have done not only the required testing for this project, but also much requested testing, which all found no hazards or reasons for concern."

Some neighbors aren't convinced.

"People don't want to live near giant, smelly, polluting factory farms," said Dayna Burtness, a hog farmer and member of Responsible Agriculture in Karst Country, a local citizen's group opposed to the Catalpa project.

Burtness said a full environmental review should have been ordered long ago.

The new comment period on the Catalpa project opened Nov. 19. Among the new comments is one that says simply: "Go Vegan."

11,000 sinkholes?

The focus of the next public meeting, to be held Dec. 4 in Mabel, will be two new studies of the site done by third parties hired by Catalpa and additional comments by two scientists who disagree with the findings.

One of the two reports commissioned by Catalpa found no evidence of a suspected sinkhole on the project site; the other used geophysical subsurface imaging and determined there were no active karst hazards that should prevent construction at the site.

"No evidence of active surface sinkhole development is interpreted in the resistivity data recorded during this investigation," Chaska-based 3Dgeophysics concluded in its report.

Todd Petersen, a geophysicist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said 3Dgeophysics' data does not prove that no karst hazard exists. He recommended rock coring.

Calvin Alexander, a retired University of Minnesota geologist and karst expert, also found problems with 3Dgeophysics' findings. He said he thinks there are several potential sinkholes near the site that have not been properly accounted for.

"The entire Catalpa Project Area is not an appropriate place for a large CAFO," Alexander said in his review. "If the proposal is not rejected, it should be subject to an EIS which should require a much more extensive geotechnical site investigation."

In southeastern Minnesota, the limestone and dolomite bedrock has weathered to form unique bluffs, disappearing streams, caves and other features, including sinkholes.

Alexander has quipped that Fillmore County is the land of 10,000 sinkholes. In reality it's more like 11,000, he said, more than in the rest of the state combined.

The MPCA is weighing whether to order an EIS for the Catalpa project, and has until Dec. 31 to decide.

It would be a rare step for the agency. Staff could recall conducting only one full environmental review of an animal feedlot. In 2003 it completed one for Hancock Pro Pork, but that EIS was ordered by a district judge.

The person or company proposing a project foots the bill for an EIS, which can take months and cost tens of thousands of dollars.

The agency has recommended an EIS for some other animal operations, but they never happened because the project backers then changed or withdrew their proposals, Rofshus said.

In fact, it was a controversy over a full environmental review that led to the demise of the agency's Citizens' Board, which used to oversee and advise on agency decisions. In 2015, after the MPCA ordered an EIS for a mega dairy farm in west-central Minnesota, the farmer canceled the project.

Outraged lawmakers killed the board.

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683