Suit against dairy still seen as a rare, extreme step

When the state late last week sued a northwestern Minnesota dairy for air pollution, it initially seemed something larger, a warning shot fired at other smelly feedlots across the state. Manage the odor problems or prepare for a lawsuit.

Not exactly.

The suit represented the most extreme step the state can take toward such violations (as well as the intensity and the length of the pollution). And a state lawsuit against a farm is pretty rare; officials and watchdogs could only remember one other filed in recent years.

“Each case is unique and is addressed according to its own set of facts,” said Amy Rudolph, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (PCA). “Generally, producers operate well within the parameters of their permits — and if a problem does arise, they work cooperatively with the agency to find a solution.”

In other words, it’s still business as usual over at the PCA.

A jointly filed lawsuit
The lawsuit was jointly filed against Excel Dairy (located outside Thief River Falls) by the PCA and the state attorney general’s office. The PCA handles permitting for the state’s large feedlots, and the AG’s office, of course, has the legal power.

Representatives of the dairy have claimed that the lawsuit is “publicity driven,” though the representatives have also admitted the dairy does have odor problems, and even the state’s dairy lobbyist/advocacy organization, Minnesota Milk Producers Association, condemned the violations. That, and it’s hard to recall the last time the AG’s office did anything that wasn’t labeled as either a good PR move or politically motivated.

In many ways, the case was a rarity. The dairy’s size, around 1,500 cows, is big by Minnesota standards (the owners of the Excel Dairy, for instance, are in the process of building a dairy in North Dakota that, when finished, will house over 7,000 cows).

And the odor — hydrogen sulfide created from decomposing waste in manure pits, smells like rotten eggs, which leads to headaches, nausea and other unpleasant acute symptoms — was so bad earlier this month that state health officials asked residents to leave their homes. It wasn’t deemed an irritation, as most excessive farm emissions are, but an actual health hazard.

A slow, deliberate procedure
The typical procedure when a farm has odor problems (and neighbors are upset enough to speak up) is to complain at the local level. Most counties have feedlot ordinances, and an officer on staff to ensure that they’re followed.

If a farm’s large enough to have water discharge and other permits from the PCA, the agency will step in with warnings and inspections, but will work fairly patiently with the farmer over a number of months and sometimes years.

It’s a slow procedure, slow enough to lead some watchdog organizations to criticize the state’s approach, but from the PCA’s perspective, it makes more sense to teach farmers how to comply rather than put time and money into lawsuits.

Still, the PCA may be more apt to file suit these days, after the last feedlot lawsuit anyone can remember, when the AG in 2002 sued the ValAdCo hog company in Renville County.

That’s a case the PCA appeared to drop the ball on, declaring in 1993 that the farm had no potential for environmental impacts. Eight years later, the hydrogen sulfide emissions were so bad that the federal Centers for Disease Control got involved. Then came the lawsuit and intervention from state health officials. The operation was eventually sold, the owners paid a $125,000 fine to the PCA — the largest for a feedlot in state history — and built new, closed manure pits.

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