There are 1,500 hundred cows at the Excel Dairy, in Excel Township, just outside Thief River Falls. It's operated by a company called Prairie Ridge Management, which owns twelve dairies, under half-a-dozen different names, in Minnesota and North and South Dakota.
At Excel Dairy, there are three barns and three manure pits. The manure pits have been giving the neighbors headaches -- literally -- since the beginning according to Jeff Brouse.
"It's so nauseous we've had neighbors throw up in their driveways," says Brouse.
Brouse says the smell was so bad he left home last Thursday night with his kids -- one is three, the other is five. They spent one night with his parents; now they're in a motel. Brouse has been measuring the hydrogen sulfide with a portable monitor. He's getting readings in his house, that are at levels only permitted up to the dairy farm's property line.
"The bottom line is these readings in our homes have been as high as 30 parts-per-billion, and that's property line standard. I've got information here from the Minnesota Department Health, that say readings as low as ten can cause neurological and brain damage, especially in smaller children," Brouse says.
According to its permit, the farm shouldn't be putting out 30 parts-per-billion of hydrogen sulfide past its property line. Outside his home, the portable monitor showed much higher levels.
Exposure at low levels can cause irritation to the eyes, nose, or throat. It may also cause difficulty in breathing for people with asthma.
Brouse and some of his neighbors have been complaining about the fumes for years. This spring, for the first time, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency set up a monitor to measure the hydrogen sulfide.
The monitor showed no readings.
Neighbors kept complaining. They said the monitor was in the wrong place. It was upwind instead of downwind from the farm. So the MPCA set up another monitor.
Gaylen Reetz directs the division at the MPCA that's responsible for feedlots.
"These monitors that we use record up to 90 parts-per-billion," Reetz says. "We have some days that it's at 90 (p.p.b.), so it could have exceeded that for a time. But there are several days that it did hit at least 90," he says.
One reason it took the MPCA so long to get around to monitoring this farm, according to Reetz, is that the agency only has about five monitors, to keep track of the thousand or so large animal operations in the state.
"We do best we can with the resources we have available to us," he explains.
Reetz says the problem at Excel Dairy is worse this year because the company is doing some work to comply with a permit the MPCA granted a year ago. That work was required because earlier, the dairy was found out of compliance with its permit requirements. The permit requires the farm to build two new manure pits.
"They have one basin that they're cleaning out right now so that they can do some repairs," Reetz says. "As they are cleaning part of that, or getting to the very bottom, there's some odors. As a result, they're sending waste to these other two pits and some of it is being discharged on the surface. Usually it's below the surface, so that's agitating it, and probably releasing seeing more odors than you'd typically expect. We're working with them to get those things corrected."
According to the permit, the work should have been done by last November. Now, Reetz says the company has until the end of June.
He says agency engineers are analyzing the monitoring data, and trying to figure out how to reduce the pollution. He says the answer could be anything from changing the animals' feed to covering the pits.
That's unlikely to satisfy the farm's neighbors. Julie Jansen is an organizer with the non-profit Clean Water Action Alliance. In her twelve years of working on feedlot issues, she says she's never seen hydrogen sulfide levels this high.
"The MPCA should have never allowed it to be built close to so many people and houses to start with," Jansen says, "but they have, and I personally believe that fast corrective action needs to happen or they should shut the place down."
Jansen successfully pushed for legislation to eliminate manure pits on hog farms. She says the pits don't work any better for cattle manure, and she's hoping this kind of operation will someday be a thing of the past.
A call to representatives of the Excel Dairy went unanswered.