MANTORVILLE, Minn. – When a judge ruled last year that Dodge County ignored its own rules to approve a large new swine feedlot, the county didn't flinch. Within three months, county commissioners approved the feedlot under a revised application, diluted the rules for obtaining an initial permit and petitioned to remove the judge from the case.
And so it goes in this southern Minnesota county, where five of seven Planning Commission members are themselves feedlot operators or sons of operators.
Now, in a case being watched by environmentalists who see the livestock industry as a chronic polluter of state waters, one Dodge County family is standing up to the "club" with a lawsuit that alleges bias and favoritism.
"You may as well just show up with your driver's license. That's about how easy it is to get a feedlot permit in Dodge County," said Sonja Trom Eayrs, a Twin Cities lawyer whose parents live in the midst of 11 livestock confinement buildings southwest of Mantorville, the county seat.
The newest of those facilities is an enclosure for 2,400 hogs located just a few hundred yards from the kitchen where Lowell Trom was born 85 years ago. Trom, a grain farmer and former Dodge County commissioner, still lives there, and he fears the feedlot will cut into his groundwater supply or that the hogs' manure will contaminate his well or area streams.
Meanwhile he lives with the on-again, off-again stench of pig manure — the equivalent in volume to sewage from a city of 7,000 people. Records show that Dodge County allowed the new feedlot to be built on just 6 acres of land, with none of the "bio-filters" required in other jurisdictions to hold back the smell.
"If you don't like it, move out. That's the attitude here," Lowell Trom said. "We can't put up with the county anymore. They don't have any respect for average people at all."
Mark Gamm, who heads zoning and environmental services for Dodge County, said it's hard for him to believe anyone views the county as an advocate for feedlot operators. Land-use decisions have always been guided by the book under standard procedures, he said.
Both Gamm and Dodge County Administrator Jim Elmquist said the imbalance of feedlot operators on the influential Planning Commission is an outgrowth of too few volunteers.
"The County Board will consider all interested parties when an opening on the Planning Commission occurs," Elmquist said. "But I do want to be clear there has historically been limited interest in serving on this advisory board."
'Faulty from the beginning'
Swine outnumber people in Dodge County by more than two to one, and the county's hog feedlots are under scrutiny by the state Department of Natural Resources for lacking proper permits for large groundwater withdrawals. The agency put Dodge, Blue Earth and Freeborn counties at the forefront of a new compliance sweep, which also will cover most other counties across the state's southern flank. The county is at the top of the watershed for two environmentally impaired rivers: the Zumbro and Cedar.
Jim Peters, an attorney for the Trom family, said the litigation is more than a not-in-my-back-yard grievance. It's about restoring impartiality to a public commission that helps regulate a controversial industry, Peters said. Besides the odor nuisance, state and federal officials believe feedlots contribute to nitrogen overloading that has contaminated drinking water with nitrates and made rivers and lakes in southwestern Minnesota unswimmable.
The Trom family won its first lawsuit against Dodge County in November, when District Court Judge Jodi Williamson vacated a feedlot conditional-use permit (CUP) granted by the county months earlier. The judge ruled that the applicant's project was embraced by the Planning Commission and County Board even though the application lacked manure management information, a map of proposed manure storage facilities, a site plan showing road access, soil type descriptions and other important details.
"The application contained only a fraction of the information required," the judge wrote. "The application process was faulty from the very beginning."
For the Troms, the court victory was short-lived.
Two days after the ruling, the feedlot owner applied for a new permit with a form that allowed belated submission of manure management plans and other details. According to court papers, the owner had purchased his 6-acre site from fellow feedlot operator Roger Toquam, whose son, Joshua Toquam, is on the county Planning Commission.
The next day, county zoning staff recommended approval of the revised application, and it was approved just 21 days later at a public hearing convened specifically for the issue. Joshua Toquam attended the hearing but did not vote.
Gamm denied an accusation by the Troms that the process was fast-tracked, saying the timeline and public notices were all legal.
"Sometimes there's a misunderstanding about processes," he said. The quickly written staff report endorsing the feedlot's reapplication was neutral, Gamm said. While it didn't include objections made by the Troms, he said, the family's complaints were in the public record when the final votes were taken on Dec. 11.
From the state's perspective, Dodge County is in overall compliance as a "delegated" regulator of feedlots, said Randy Hukriede, a regional feedlot manager for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The county recently amended its feedlot permitting ordinance to drop disclosure requirements for the initial CUP — a move the Troms are challenging in a second lawsuit.
But Gamm and Hukriede said the change doesn't circumvent state feedlot rules because a second step in the approval process — getting a construction permit — can't be accomplished without full disclosure of manure management planning, soil considerations, proper siting and other bottom-line items.
But the Troms are pressing in court to prove that Dodge County is rubber-stamping feedlot projects with a planning commission "comprised predominantly of individuals who have a direct financial stake in the feedlot industry." They are making their case in front of a new judge because the county had Judge Williamson removed from the case.
Under the recent ordinance change, the slimmed-down, two-page application for a feedlot CUP asks only for the proposer's identity, location of the site, animal setup, manure pit depth, barn description and site map. Manure issues are addressed in just three lines of boxes that the proposer can check or leave unchecked.
"Once they have a CUP, it's all over," Sonja Trom Earys said. "And you can't take a hard look at a public hearing if you don't have the information."
Peters, the family's attorney, said the county's behavior is clear evidence of a bias in favor of feedlot operators. "This county thinks it can do whatever it wants," he said. "They'll change the rules rather than do what the rules say."