Local residents may be saying ‘GEIS Yes’ on budget proposal

By : 
DAVID PHILLIPS
Reflections from my Notebook

The “EIS Yes” campaign by the Responsible Agriculture in Karst Country (RAKC) group may be paying off.

No, the Catalpa 5,000-sow farrowing facility in Newburg Township, which was the focus of the EIS Yes campaign, hasn’t resurfaced since landowner Al Hein pulled the permit application. However, buried in the budget proposed by Gov. Tim Walz is a $2 million appropriation for what is called a generic environmental impact statement (GEIS) to study and address nitrate pollution of groundwater in the sensitive karst region of southeastern Minnesota.

During the recent permit process for the Catalpa project, two public hearings drew more than 700 people and the MPCA received 771 written comments as RAKC and others sought an environmental impact statement due to the karst geology of our area.

John Linc Stine, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency commissioner at the time, not only opposed the Catalpa project, he also proposed that the state Environmental Quality Board (EQB) authorize a broader, state-funded study of groundwater pollution in the region.

Although the original issue at the time was one particular operation, which would have generated more than 7.3 million gallons of manure annually to be spread on farm fields for fertilizer, Stine realized there is a bigger public health issue because the geology of this area of Minnesota is different than the rest of the state. “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.

The new governor’s budget has received a lot of attention for its increased spending on school, health and roads as well as an increase in the gas tax.  While those are important issues to the region, so is this little-discussed component of the budget that would fund a GEIS to fulfill Stine’s vision.

The GEIS would investigate sources of nitrate, evaluate ways to address nitrate contamination, and inform the review of new projects that may have the potential impact of a Catalpa.

The GEIS process would bring together state and local decision makers, technical experts, and members of the affected communities to better protect the karst region from nitrate contamination, according to Cathy Rofshus, information officer — water with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, who cited information from a document outlining the agency’s budget proposal.

The governor’s proposal would support preparation of an interagency GEIS at the direction of the EQB to study and address nitrate pollution of groundwater in the sensitive karst region of southeastern Minnesota. Rofshus noted that since the MPCA made the request for the GEIS, the funding, proposed in fiscal year 2020, is included in the MPCA’s budget. The EQB has yet to discuss the request, she added, but the funding request is needed before this opportunity passed.

The GEIS would: compile information about sources of nitrate; evaluate programs, policies and regulatory requirements to see if changes are needed to prevent and address nitrate contamination; and inform the development and review of new projects. In addition, the GEIS would evaluate the social, economic and health impacts from current nitrate levels in the region as well as engage community members to identify their concerns.

A GEIS benefits the public by helping ensure complete information is available for government decision-making, according to the MPCA document. The GEIS process is not a substitute for project specific environmental review. Rather, it is a means of providing a more comprehensive analysis of a given region, issue or type of activity.

Much of the needed data and expertise for assessing nitrates in the karst region is already available since the Minnesota Department of Agriculture recently compiled extensive data on nitrate contamination of drinking water wells. The data compiled via the MDA Township Testing Program indicates that numerous townships in the karst region with private wells are at or above the 10 milligrams per liter health risk limit for nitrate.

According to existing studies, the following sources of nitrogen most likely contribute to the current nitrate levels in groundwater, surface water and drinking water and their respective significance in the karst region would be evaluated as part of the GEIS study: commercial fertilizer and manure application applied to row crops; aging septic systems; bio-solids from wastewater treatment; animal agriculture and feedlots; and natural background and atmospheric deposition.

However, additional technical information may be gathered as part of the GEIS process to improve understanding of how nitrates reach groundwater and contribute to contamination of wells, and improve understanding of alternatives to prevent, mitigate, and remediate such contamination. Also, it hopes to get a complete inventory of all sources of nitrogen, including natural, and the level of contribution of each source to the existing problem.

Once the technical information is gathered, existing state policies, programs and regulatory requirements will be evaluated in light of the unique characteristics of this region. A regional assessment would provide better information for identifying which programs, policies and regulatory requirements may need to be refined to better protect the karst region of southeastern Minnesota from nitrate contamination of groundwater.

The MPCA document has much more technical information, but the essence is that this could have an enormous impact on our region, providing a better understanding of the complexities of the water system in the karst region and offering more guidelines on what activities make an impact on water quality.

The potential benefits of this study should be enough for local residents to change their slogan to “GEIS Yes.”