MPCA orders troubled dairy to take action

Excel Dairy
State health officials say neighbors of this dairy farm north of Thief River Falls have been repeatedly exposed to elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide. Air quality monitors over the past few months have recorded levels that far exceed Minnesota state standards. Nearby residents say the exposure is making them sick.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

State health officials say a dairy farm near Thief River Falls continues to pose a public health hazard.

Manure basins at Excel Dairy are emitting dangerous levels of hydrogen sulfide. The problem has been going on for more than a year. Excel's owner is under pressure to fix the problem. But so far, that hasn't happened.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has now ordered a northern Minnesota dairy farm to empty two of its three manure basins. The administrative order issued today, requires Excel Dairy to complete the work within 14 days.

Neighbors say living next to Excel Dairy is a nightmare that won't end. There haven't been cows at the facility since January, but for more than a year, air quality monitors in the neighborhood have registered hydrogen sulfide emissions that far exceed government safety standards.

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State law says hydrogen sulfide levels are supposed to be below 30 parts per billion outside Excel property. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency monitoring equipment is capable of detecting up to 90 parts per billion, and levels have exceeded that numerous times.

Last year, neighbors were doing their own air quality monitoring. They detected levels as high as 600 parts per billion.

So far in 2009, there have been more than 100 violations.

"I cannot be out in it, because I get nauseous very quickly."

Mona Loe lives just 300 yards from Excel Dairy. Loe said it's not just the horrible smell of rotten eggs. It's headaches, breathing problems and fatigue -- and a constant worry about long-term health effects.

"Personally, I cannot be out in it, because I get nauseous very quickly with it," Loe said. "The hydrogen sulfide is a neurotoxin, and we may not see what it's doing for 10 years. And that's really scary."

In April, the MPCA's citizen board revoked Excel's operating permit. The board then granted the company a new permit with some very specific conditions. Excel was to empty its three manure basins and put covers on two of the basins to control the smell. That work was supposed to be done by June 12, but it never happened.

Mona Loe said Excel has repeatedly dragged its feet in spite of the dangerous health conditions. She wants the state to shut Excel down for good.

"I am very frustrated with the state, and that they cannot go in and just clean this up and take away the permit," Loe said. "It's seems that Mr. Millner has more rights than us as property owners."

Loe is referring to Rick Millner, CEO of the South Dakota company that owns Excel Dairy. Millner strongly disputes the idea that people are really getting sick from hydrogen sulfide emissions.

"Let's be clear here, there's no public health hazard," Millner said.

Millner claims none of his 19 employees who worked at the dairy ever got sick from emissions. He said there's no scientific basis for the health claims.

Millner and his attorneys contend that an order from the Pollution Control Agency caused the emissions. In 2007, the PCA ordered Excel Dairy to excavate one of its manure basins. Millner said that disturbed normal operations.

He said they haven't been able to spread the manure onto nearby fields yet, despite the June 12 deadline from the PCA. Millner blames the wet weather, and said pumping 20 million gallons of waste onto local fields when the soil is wet would be irresponsible and could lead to runoff.

"You can't go into those kind of conditions and do a slopped-up job of putting down manure," Millner said. "Everybody wants this manure gone, but we're not going to follow somebody over a cliff again, put manure down in these kind of wet conditions, and then cause a whole new set of problems."

MPCA officials say Excel Dairy has shown a long pattern of non-compliance with state regulations. Gaylen Reetz, the agency's regional director, denies the MPCA is at fault, and dismisses Millner's wet weather excuse.

"There must have been a period when it was dry enough," Reetz said. "We believe that it could have been accomplished. The board made it very clear that they were frustrated and had expectations that the dairy needed to come into compliance with their permit."

Reetz said the Excel case could get bogged down in the courts. Excel has appealed the conditions of its current permit. In mid-May, a judge in Marshall County dismissed criminal charges against Excel Dairy. But a civil suit filed by the MPCA and the Attorney General's office is ongoing.

Officials with the Minnesota Department of Health say they're closely watching air quality emissions data collected from two monitors near the dairy site. At one point last year, health officials advised people living nearby to evacuate their homes because of high hydrogen sulfide levels.

Minnesota Department of Health toxicologist Rita Messing said that's unlikely to happen again, even if emissions continue to exceed safe levels.

"I think the citizens at this point are pretty well able to make that kind of judgment for themselves," Messing said. "Last year, it was based on a report, which was unconfirmed. But nevertheless, it was a citizen measurement that they were reporting levels above 1,000 parts per billion, and those are very high levels in a community."

Excel Dairy officials say they plan to begin removing manure from the site as soon as there's a week or so of dry weather. They're hoping to put cows back onto the property by fall of 2010.