Commissioners support request for EIS on proposed hog confinement facility

By : 
GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY
Bluff Country Newspaper Group

Fillmore County’s commissioners heard statements from residents concerned about the proposal from Catalpa, LLC, to build a nearly 5,000-unit hog confinement facility near Newburg during its July 3 meeting. The residents approached the commissioners with a plea for the board to submit a request for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to conduct an environmental impact study (EIS) before the facility’s owners are allowed to proceed with constructing it and the nine-million-gallon underground manure pit over Fillmore County’s karst topography.

Holt Township resident Bonita Underbakke sat before the board first during the citizens’ input portion of the meeting. “I speak to the need for a full environmental impact study of the Catalpa proposal,” she said. “There’s clearly a potential for a significant environmental impact. I urge you to submit letters to the MPCA asking for an environmental impact study.”

Eva Barr, of Fillmore Township, spoke next. “I implore you to use common sense in this matter. This is intended to be the largest hog operation in the county…5,000 hogs over a nine-million-gallon manure containment pit underneath. Common sense says that this is something our county has not contended with before,” she said. “A few years ago, there was an accident and over a million gallons of manure might have run into the aquifer. The MPCA representative who was overseeing here couldn’t answer whether or not it landed in the aquifer. Can we afford such a mistake or accident? They did very openly say they’re formulating their business plan…Fillmore County residents would like to see (their business plan). Furthermore, this involves a business from Iowa. It’s bi-state, across the border, and there are discrepancies.”

Mike Jensen, of Carrolton Township, gave his perspective. “Let’s think about this as not doing an impulse purchase. Think about doing what’s right, because without that information…at 4:30 today, if the MPCA doesn’t get it (EIS), they’re not going to do it.”

Bonnie Haugen, of Canton Township, was next. “I’m within two miles of the proposed Catalpa farm. Farming’s everybody’s bread and butter. As a farmer, I understand the frustration of regulations, however, they’re a good thing, meant to protect the environment. What I do on my farm affects other people, and therefore, I do not think that it’s out of line to request an EIS,” she said. “People are talking about ownership, and even if one partner owns 51 percent, ownership can change in a hurry. We need to look at what’s actually going to happen.”

Lanesboro resident Ann Flynn, who recently moved to Fillmore County, shared her observations of Catalpa’s efforts to locate near Newburg and her neighbors’ efforts to stop that location. “I’m from Lanesboro, and I’m impressed mainly by two things — the passion, diversity and intelligence of the people who spoke at the meetings and how clear it was to them that they did not want this hog operation on their land, that they’re afraid that it will contaminate the water and the air,” she said. “Almost all of my neighbors live close to where it will be, and they have data and done research. There’s a need for transparency. Hog farms don’t seem to have a good track record.”

Commissioner Marc Prestby answered another resident’s question regarding whether individual commissioners had sent letters of support for an EIS to the MPCA, citing that he had and that he wished for the board as a whole to send one to show its intent.

Commissioner Duane Bakke added that he had in hand, a letter submitted to the board by Donna Rasmussen, of Fillmore County’s Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) and representative of area SWCD associations, speaking for the drafting of a board-endorsed letter asking for an EIS.

Bakke related that he has been asked whether the county has access to ground-penetrating radar to determine whether the site that Catalpa would like to use has a solid bedrock foundation or is situated over sinkholes because there have been farms in other counties that have had that done.

“Right now, Catalpa has applied for a general permit — which means that it’s very general, statewide — and (Fillmore County feedlot officer) Mike Frauenkron asked that they move to an individual permit because it has stronger language,” Bakke added.

Commissioner Randy Dahl asked what the difference between the permits would be and how it would affect the county’s authority if a change were to be made.

Bakke replied, “We still have the right as a county board and planning commission to ask for specific conditions, and if these things don’t happen in a general permit, we’d ask for a conditional use permit (CUP).”

Board Chairman Mitch Lentz observed that if a CUP were to be issued, the enforcement would fall to the county and Frauenkron.

Bakke concurred, “They’re over 1,000 units, so it’s the state. The state calls us, and we would send the feedlot officer. And in the case of catastrophic death where they have to bury them all, we’d be sending him, too.”

Dahl interjected that he felt Fillmore County’s feedlot ordinances are rather stringent and that citizens should have some input regarding the animal operations being placed over their groundwater sources.

“It seems to me that there are a lot of unanswered questions from the applicant. Have they filled any sinkholes? We don’t know the answer. There are some questions out there…discovery and comments. I feel that we have a very good feedlot officer and planning commission, and our process works,” he said. “If people want to (put in a feedlot), they come in to the feedlot officer, ask, and it works.”

Bakke related there are likely numerous feedlot proposals that never reach the public because Frauenkron has turned them down because the people who propose them bring them to the county, follow the process in place and find different, more suitable parcels on which to operate.

He concluded that the board could support the letters urging the drafting of an EIS statement.

Lentz asked the board, “What are the next wishes, and what does the board want to do here?”

Prestby stated, “Like I said, I want to send a letter of support…to require an EIS.”

Commissioner Gary Peterson seconded Prestby’s motion, after which members of the gallery applauded the board’s action.    

Technology upgrade

Coordinator-Auditor-Treasurer Bobbie Vickerman introduced a discussion regarding managed IT services bought through Marco and determining backup options for the county’s technology data.

Ultimately, the board chose to upgrade the IT services from eight hours a day, five days a week, to having around-the-clock IT provided by Marco at a cost of $141,000, up from $114,000 for the weekly services.

That means, however, two employees who have handled the county’s IT troubleshooting will be replaced by Marco technicians, and the board acknowledged the need to make time for them to find new employment within or outside the county.

The board proposed October as a target transition month for the changes to occur.

County Attorney Brett Corson spoke up, remarking that he hadn’t reviewed the contract. An amendment was made to the motion to approve continuous IT management that encompassed having Corson and his office read through the contract. The motion passed, with the board choosing to have Marco also handle backup of the county’s data, instead of purchasing equipment to do so. 

Other business

The consent agenda included approving successful completion of probation for social services manager Kevin Olson — effective July 5 — and a merit increase to accompany the end of his probation.