Eye-watering plumes from a dairy feedlot north of Thief River Falls are a “health hazard,” say authorities, and when the wind shifts nearby families and children must escape the foul air by evacuating, sometimes in the dead of night. Local elected officials have joined a chorus of residents to demand the site be closed, but for two years feedlot owners have sidestepped cleanup orders they consider “a joke.”
The source of the rancid stench, Excel Dairy, still has a permit to operate, and some who’ve endured the nauseating, rotten-egg smelling hydrogen sulfide rising off manure lagoons are wondering why state authorities aren’t more forceful in stopping it.
“It seems that a corporation in South Dakota has more rights than the citizens of Minnesota,” said Mona Loe, who with her husband lives 300 yards from Excel.
While there are current no cows on the site, the manure lagoons remain along with emissions the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) says are “dangerous.” The manager of Excel’s parent company, Rick Millner of The Dairy Dozen in Veblen, S.D., said he intends to move up to1,500 head of cattle back onto the site next spring even though that action may not be allowed by a special, one-year permit issued last April.
“I’m baffled that this keeps dragging on, especially when people’s health is at stake,” said DFL State Rep. David Olin of Thief River Falls. Olin served as Pennington County attorney for 32 years.
‘A public health hazard’
“This is the worst operation in the United States,” said Julie Jansen of Olivia, Minn., who’s been active in Minnesota feedlot issues for 14 years. MPCA documents show the feedlot has exceeded state health standards hundreds of times; citizen monitors have registered violations thousands of times higher than allowable levels, and the state’s Department of Health and the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease said their tests of July 2008 show that Excel emissions are “a public health hazard.”
The MPCA, Marshall County, and citizens in the area filed civil actions against Excel in Minnesota District Court, but Judge Jeffrey Remick of Crookston has taken more than a year to decide the case. Court Administrator Nancy Sturman said there’s no timetable for action.
Last week, the MPCA issued yet another in a series of strongly worded demands that Excel “immediately” address what the agency says are “illegal and dangerously high emissions” of hydrogen sulfide. The MPCA citizens board has grown weary of the numerous times it’s had to hear about the Excel Dairy situation.
On receiving the order dated Oct. 1, Millner bristled. He said he’d already committed in writing on Sept. 24 to do what the MPCA ordered him to do just a week later.
Families evacuate area
“Less than two weeks ago my family had to evacuate for the umpteenth time,” said Jeff Brouse, who lives with his wife and three small children less than a mile from the feedlot. The hydrogen sulfide plume affects nearly a dozen families, and all have taken the Health Department’s advice that they evacuate — which also means they must bear costs of motels and food when they do.
Brouse runs an auto repair and salvage business, and says he’d be shut down if he didn’t comply with a range of hazardous-waste regulations.
Olin said he shares the frustration of those who live near the feedlot. He said that just last week he was driving back from an event, and he could easily smell foul odors from the plant two miles away.
Because Excel Dairy has capacity for more than 1,000 cattle, it is permitted by the MPCA. Fewer than 1,000 head would be permitted through county feedlot ordinances.
Howard Person, the feedlot officer for Marshall and Pennington counties, said all of the feedlots under his jurisdiction are cooperative. He said he would “absolutely” move aggressively against any of them if they failed to comply with county rules.
Permit revoked, reissued
Last April, the MPCA revoked Excel’s permit but reissued a one-year permit with what agency official Gaylen Reetz said were stringent requirements, now under court challenge by Excel.
Among other things, Excel was to drain two of its three manure lagoons and draw down a third, and build collection pipes in the event the lagoons overflow. While Excel said it intends to comply, the MPCA notes that Excel didn’t respond to a draft of the latest order.
For his part, Millner said he wants to work with the MPCA, but he says that each time he commits to doing something the agency draws up an order against the dairy.
“That’s how this goes,” Millner said. “I commit to doing something, and the state then orders me to do it.” Besides, Millner said, federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards are not being violated.
Another dairy near Hoffman
Millner said his company operates another dairy in Minnesota (the rest are in South Dakota and North Dakota), New Horizons near Hoffman, Minn.
Asked if New Horizons has had any compliance issues in the past, Millner said it had not. However, state records show that the Hoffman dairy paid a fine of $17,400 in 2007 for feedlot violations.
Reetz said the MPCA must enforce its regulations thorough the courts, which gets back to the long delay by Judge Remick to act on the pending civil cases against the dairy.
Meanwhile, the company must get a state permit before it can move cattle back onto the Excel site, and the permitting process can take six months or more. The company’s current permit expires in seven months.
Ron Way reports on environmental issues for MinnPost.