Big feedlots feed big worries in southern Minnesota

Evelyn and Lowell Trom are suing Dodge County.
Evelyn and Lowell Trom are suing Dodge County for a second time over a conditional use permit issued to a hog farmer near their home and farm. The couple is claiming the county is biased and didn't follow procedures in the feedlot permitting process.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News

Ten hog farms sat already in a three-mile ring around Lowell Trom's rural Dodge County home. When an 11th got a permit, he fought it.

Trom and his wife Evelyn sued and initially won their first lawsuit against the county in December when a district judge said officials had approved an incomplete permit application. Two days later, however, the operator revised the application.

By the end of the month, the county approved the project, a 2,400 hog operation on six acres bordering the Troms' land.

Lowell Trom looked through some old photos.
Lowell Trom looked through some old photos of his farm while discussing the lawsuit he and his wife Evelyn are involved in with Dodge County Wednesday, April 1, 2015. The Troms are suing the county for a second time claiming the county is biased and didn't follow procedures in the feedlot permitting process after a hog farm near them was granted a permit.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News

County officials say they followed the law. The growth of large animal feedlots in the region, however, has some residents overwhelmed and worried about the future. The operations, they believe, may pose a threat to local groundwater and are damaging quality of life.

The Troms are at the center of that storm. They've filed a second lawsuit against Dodge County, saying it put in place an unfair and biased process to fast-track the project, and are waiting on a hearing in the coming weeks.

"It just got too big. That's the problem," Lowell Trom said recently of the livestock operations around him as he flipped through pictures of his farm from over the years. He was born in this Westfield Township home 85 years ago and has grown corn and soybeans here for decades on 760 acres.

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Hog farm in Blooming Prairie, Minn.
This hog farm in Blooming Prairie, Minn. is less than a mile from Lowell and Evelyn Trom's farm and home. The Troms are suing Dodge County for a second time over a conditional use permit issued to the farm. The couple is claiming the county is biased and didn't follow procedures in the feedlot permitting process.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News

The Troms' daughter, Sonja Trom Eayrs, says her parents are concerned about the odor, but also about long-term effects on air quality, water usage and contamination. The county, she said, changed the rules to favor feedlot operators.

"They fast-tracked it," she said. "They couldn't wait to rush this thing through, hoping, quite honestly, that they would just shut us down."

Dodge County did amend its permitting ordinance earlier this year, lowering the requirements for initial conditional use permits. Issues like manure storage and irrigation are no longer required until later in the permitting process.

Mark Gamm, the county's zoning and environmental services director, says the county simply adjusted its requirements to comply with the judge's decision.

Mark Gamm and Jim Elmquist
Mark Gamm, Dodge County Environmental Services Director, left, and Jim Elmquist, Dodge County Administrator, talk about the permitting process for feedlots in the county Wednesday, April 1, 2015, in Mantorville. Lowell and Evelyn Trom are suing the county for a second time claiming the county is biased and didn't follow procedures in the feedlot permitting process after a hog farm near them was granted a permit after two days of the application for the permit.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News

"We don't agree that it was fast-tracked," he said. "We followed the judge's directive and we amended our ordinance to clarify what's required at the application stage."

County Administrator Jim Elmquist adds that the process was quick, but legal. The county held a public hearing, notified the state of the new application and notified local township officials, he added. "What's trying to be projected out there is that Dodge County fast-tracked it so nobody could get the information. Everybody had the information."

State officials recently launched a new program in four southern Minnesota counties, including Dodge, to review how much water livestock farms use and whether their permits allow it.

Minnesota requires operators that use more than 1 million gallons of water a year to have a water-appropriation permit. But only a fraction of those have proper permits.

The agency used to issue general permits for feedlots that used from 1 to 5 million gallons of water a year. But since a 2010 state law began requiring permits for users of 1 million gallons or more a year, many operators have failed to get new permits.

Sonja Trom Eayrs with her parents
Sonja Trom Eayrs, center, talks about the feedlot concerns her parents have with the hog farm less than one mile from their home, and the lawsuit they are involved in with Dodge County Wednesday, April 1, 2015. Lowell, left, and Evelyn Trom, right, are suing the county for a second time claiming the county is biased and didn't follow procedures in the feedlot permitting process after a hog farm near them was granted a permit.
Alex Kolyer for MPR News

The agency recently hired four new staffers to help with the permit compliance efforts in southern Minnesota.

"There's just been a big push statewide about the volume of water we're using," said Jim Sehl, a groundwater specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The effort is not meant to fine or penalize feedlots, but rather to get operators the proper permits, Sehl said.

Sonja Trom Eayrs, though, hopes the DNR's compliance effort leads to deeper look at feedlot regulation locally and statewide.

"Here in Dodge County, there is no respect for the average citizen, the governmental process," she said. "There's no respect for the air, and the land and the water. We've seen that in the way that the county has conducted business."