Area’s water quality issue bigger than Catalpa project

By : 
Reflections from my Notebook

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner John Linc Stine admitted at a news conference that the denial of a permit for Catalpa LLC’s proposed 4,890-sow facility in Newburg Township was an unusual action. He noted that typically these permits are granted as thousands of feedlots now operate across the state.

The reason he gave for the denial of the operation, which would have generated more than 7.3 million gallons of manure annually to be spread on farm fields for fertilizer, is due to the threat to public health.

Many local residents are cheering the decision while fewer others argue that the operation could have been run responsibly with enough safeguards built in.

However, the bigger victory for all area residents is the commissioner’s proposal he made in addition to the permit denial when making his decision. Stine recommended that the state Environmental Quality Board authorize a broader, state-funded study of groundwater pollution in the region.

In denying this particular permit due to what he characterized as a public health threat and recommending further study, Stine recognized that the geology of this area of Minnesota is different than the rest of the state. The karst topography unique to southeastern Minnesota is extremely vulnerable to water contamination, much more so than other areas of the state with more typical topography.

Stine pointed out that 19 of 24 townships in Fillmore County had 10 percent or more of tested private wells at or above the health risk limit for nitrates.

Nitrates in drinking water can cause blue baby syndrome in bottle-fed infants less than 6 months old and may increase the risk of harm for people with certain health conditions, according to Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm, who supported Stine’s decision.

The health commissioner also agreed that a regional environmental study of groundwater pollution should be conducted to develop a comprehensive approach to protecting drinking water in southeastern Minnesota.

Most local residents, many who protested the feedlot proposal, are already aware of our unusual topography, dotted with sinkholes, caves and disappearing springs and rivers, due to the porous limestone that allows surface water to rapidly enter groundwater.

The interconnectedness of the surface water and groundwater in our area first came to the forefront when University of Minnesota geology professor Calvin Alexander arrived on the scene in the 1980s to pinpoint the dangers of toxic chemicals leaking from Ironwood Sanitary Landfill near Spring Valley. He conducted several dye trace studies, in which red dye was dumped into the South Branch of the Root River. The dye ended up in several unexpected places miles away from the source more rapidly than ever imagined.

At the time, Alexander said he had previously made some limited dye traces of individual sink-points along the river, but he had never attempted to trace the entire system at once. The support of local people, many lobbying the MPCA to clean up the landfill, encouraged him to undertake this project in 1981 and again in 1982.

After the second dye trace, Alexander concluded, “The predictable principles of hydrology that apply to other geological areas simply do not apply to the karst region,” according to a story by Muriel Morrisette in a 1982 Journal of Freshwater.

The landfill has been cleaned up and is still being monitored, thanks, in part, to Alexander’s research in southeastern Minnesota in the early 1980s. More importantly, the impact made by Alexander, who is an educator as well as a researcher, is still evident today. The word karst, unknown to most people prior to 1981, is a regular part of discussion today.

And, it isn’t just the vocabulary that changed. Previously, for example, some people used sinkholes as waste dumps, never associating what happened on the surface with the quality of water that flows underground.

In the Journal of Freshwater article, Morrisette concluded the landfill situation may have been a blessing in disguise because it focused attention on the potential for disastrous effects to the fragile water system of the karst region.

Perhaps the Catalpa project will also be a blessing in disguise if the state water quality study of the karst region comes to fruition. The study could provide more scientific answers to how certain activities affect the groundwater.

Alexander opened our eyes about how the surface water and groundwater are interconnected in our karst region. However, there are still questions about how that process works and what effects certain activities have on our water system. For example, the exact source of the nitrate contamination in wells hasn’t been pinpointed.

It isn’t just large-scale farming that could seemingly make an impact on our water quality. The region has had pressures from frac sand mining, housing development and other human activities that have the potential to impair our water quality.

As Stine said at the news conference, the issue is bigger than any one feedlot or farm.