Catalpa permit denied MPCA commissioner urges additional groundwater studies

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Groundwater contamination is an issue that goes well beyond one farmer’s application to build a large swine operation.

That was the gist of comments made by Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Commissioner John Linc Stine last week, as he announced his decision to deny a permit for the proposed Catalpa swine facility in Fillmore County near Mabel.

Because of the permit denial, there is no need to call for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a request being made by many opponents of the project.


Earlier this year, Catalpa Ag of Waukon, Iowa, released plans to build a new 4,890-head swine facility on land owned by Al Hein in Newburg. It is estimated the operation would have generated an estimated 7.3 million gallons of liquid manure annually.

Two public hearings on the matter drew more than 700 people, and 771 comments were submitted to the MPCA on the matter.

Opponents of the issue cited water and air quality concerns and how these would affect quality of life, tourism and the economy of southeastern Minnesota.


Based on public feedback, Stine has recommended the Environmental Quality Board (EQB) conduct a regional environmental study of groundwater pollution in the karst areas of the region.

“The Catalpa project is the first big new feedlot application we’ve had in Fillmore County since extensive data on nitrate contamination of drinking water wells has come out . . . The karst region is subject to rapid seepage of contaminants from the land and overlying soils, making the groundwater of this region very vulnerable, “ he said in a statement on his decision.

A recent Minnesota Department of Agriculture study found that 19 of 24 townships in Fillmore County have private wells at or above the health risk limit for nitrates, which is 10 milligrams per liter. Nitrates in drinking water can pose a health risk to people, especially infants and the elderly.


Loni Kemp, who represents Responsible Agriculture in Karst Country (RAKC), a citizens’ action group which opposed the Catalpa project, said while her organization feels Stine’s decision is a “cause for celebration,” they will continue their efforts.

“We’re happy to hear Stine’s intention to request a karst-wide look at groundwater pollution . . . We need to change our practices so we have clean water for our future,” she said.

Kemp said she also knows the work of RAKC is far from over.

“We have three townships currently working on moratoriums and implementing zoning and two more are discussing it,” she said.

She said RAKC will continue its efforts and be prepared for the fact Catalpa may still apply for a customized or individual permit.

According to the MPCA, the individual permit process is a more in-depth and tailored analysis that is more rigorous than the general permit Catalpa Ag had applied for. Farmers and producers in the region seeking permits for new or expanded feedlot operations could continue to seek individual permits while a regional study is underway.

Take some time

Hein said Catalpa has not yet decided if it will file for an individual permit.

With regard to groundwater quality, Hein reiterated his previous bias against commercial fertilizer. Throughout the process, he has expressed his feelings that animal agriculture is much better for the environment.

On the subject of Stine’s denial of the permit, Hein said, “They need to take whatever time they need to take (to investigate the water quality issue) . . . I also am concerned about water quality . . . I want to be part of the process, not hinder it.”