Opponents of Catalpa hog facility take EIS plea to St. Paul

Mabel and Fillmore County area residents traveled to St. Paul last Tuesday to meet with staff members of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Gov. Mark Dayton to request an environmental impact study on a proposed sow farrowing facility in Newburg Township near Mabel. CHAD SMITH/NEWS LEADER
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Bluff Country Newspaper Group

The battle over the proposed Catalpa 5,000-sow farrowing facility shifted last week from Fillmore County to St. Paul. Dozens of family farmers, business owners, and rural residents made a trip to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) for a public protest and press conference. The group wants the MPCA to conduct an in-depth environmental impact study on the proposed facility in the Newburg Township.

“To give a little bit of context, the next-largest farrowing operation in that area is around 1,500 sows,” said area farmer Dayna Burtness, one of the spokespeople for the group. “They’re currently moving through the environmental review process that’s set out by state law. So far, they’ve completed their environmental assessment worksheet.

“Now, our group would like them to follow state law because the entire point of an environmental assessment worksheet is to figure out if the potential is there for significant environmental impacts,” she said. “If the potential is there, the MPCA must order an EIS (environmental impact study). We just want the MPCA to follow the rules and follow the law. That’s what we’re asking for today.”

The group of Fillmore County residents says they’re concerned about their drinking water, clean air, and overall property values.

Burtness said studies have shown that property values “tank” around these kinds of facilities. She also said it’s “kind of ridiculous” that they have to make a trip to St. Paul just to ask the MPCA to follow the law. Burtness said the agency hasn’t always conducted an EIS in the past, even when it’s clearly called for.

Residents in the area around the proposed site in the Newburg Township are already having trouble with drinking water and are concerned about the risks of a potential manure spill.

The Rev. Pam Seebach of the Newburg United Methodist Church was on hand to describe what the groundwater situation is like, saying it’s not ideal even before the facility is potentially built.

“Our well is already considered vulnerable, due to the high nitrate levels,” Seebach said. “You spread manure in the quantities that they’re proposing to spread it and it will go underground. Without a well, how is a church supposed to function?”

Mabel Mayor Jim Westby also made the trip to St. Paul to participate in the press conference. Westby said southeast Minnesota has had trouble from large farming operations in the past and he doesn’t want to see the same thing happen to other areas in the future.

“Years ago, we had a dairy operation set up in Iowa, which pumped all its manure into the valley right near Mabel,” he said. “Within a matter of time, our 90-foot and 100-foot wells were contaminated with nitrates. We had to turn around and drill two brand-new wells, each 700-feet deep, to get good water.”

“Not only are we concerned about water quality,” Westby said, “but drilling those two wells cost people in the city of Mabel a great deal. Are they (Catalpa) going to pay for all the wells of people in the country if they go bad? We want good quality water and clean air.”

During the press conference, Burtness pointed out that the environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) showed that the new facility won’t be managed day-to-day by a local resident. The operation will be managed by the Waukon Feed Ranch, an out-of-state corporation in Iowa, which Burtness said means they won’t be accountable to the community. She said the other disturbing part of the EAW is the amount of waste that the hogs would produce and how Catalpa wants to transport it.

“Those 5,000 sows would produce 7.3 million gallons of liquid manure sewage annually,” she told reporters. “That’s the same amount of sewage that a town of 50,000 people would produce in a year.

“We’ve also learned they’ll apply the manure to over 1,700 acres of land, in close proximity to our homes, our farms, our trout streams, sinkholes, and our wells,” Burtness continued. “They plan to apply it by pumping this liquid sewage up to 7.5 miles away through a hose running over private property, streams and over roads. It’s risky all by itself, but to make matters worse, southeast Minnesota is Karst country.”

In simple terms, that means the bedrock is extremely porous, with lots of fissures and cracks. That makes the groundwater extremely susceptible to contamination from farms like the Catalpa facility.

Aaron Bishop helps manage Niagara Cave in Fillmore County, and he said new sinkholes open up in the bedrock every year.

“Our region is rife with sinkholes and disappearing streams,” he said, “as well as caves, springs and vertical fractures. The ground is both a combination of sponge and Swiss cheese that holds a lot of water. Like Swiss cheese, it has a lot of access down to very great depths in a very short period of time.

“Anything that happens on the surface, such as spreading manure or a break in a manure line, will leach into the groundwater at a very fast pace,” Bishop said. “There’s a confinement operation just south of the (Minnesota-Iowa) line, a mile away from us. When we get large rains and the river rises, we can smell manure 200 feet below the surface. Our geology is very delicate in southeast Minnesota.”   

The group members insisted they are not against agriculture. Mark Spande is a southeast Minnesota farmer who was there to participate as one of the spokespeople during the press conference. Spande said his family farm is a century farm that’s been in existence since the 1800s.

“In no way are these people here against agriculture,” Spande said while gesturing to the Fillmore County residents. “It’s about good fences making for good neighbors, but we really shouldn’t need to have our fences as high as air blows and as low as the water flows. I’m absolutely for keeping my nose out of other people’s business, but when your business could affect my well-being, my quality of life, my water, as well as all the people here, then it’s time to stick my nose into that business.”

Burtness added, “We’re simply here today to make sure that MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stein follows the law by ordering a full environmental impact statement for the proposed Catalpa, LLC., swine facility.”

Group leaders met with the assistant commissioner at the MPCA, Shannon Lotthammer, who Burtness said was very receptive to what they had to say and promised to pass on everything they’d said to Commissioner John Linc-Stein.

The group then went on to meet directly with Gov. Mark Dayton, who Burtness said listened intently to their message.

“The governor made some generally supportive comments,” Burtness said, “but because the comment period wasn’t open at the time, he couldn’t make any specific remarks.”

She said what the Fillmore County residents need now is action. The group found out later in the day that it got some support from the Fillmore County Commissioners, who voted unanimously to send a resolution to officials at the MPCA, calling for an environmental impact study (EIS). The resolution also included two letters of support for an EIS from Fillmore County Feedlot Officer Mike Frauenkron, as well as one from Donna Rasmussen from the Soil and Water Conservation District. 

Note: The quote by area farmer Dayna Burtness was corrected after the article was posted to "the next-largest farrowing operation in that area is around 1,500 sows." The original quote inaccurately had hog operation rather than farrowing operation. Also, the first name of the Rev. Pam Seebach was corrected.