State costs soar to $7M as bird flu outbreak worsens

A Minnesota turkey flock
Minnesota and several other states are struggling to contain the H5N2 and H5N8 strains of influenza.
Bethany Hahn via AP 2012

Updated: 6:30 p.m. | Posted: 1:55 p.m.

Gov. Mark Dayton and state officials approved a monthlong extension to a peacetime state of emergency Monday to battle bird flu, acknowledging they still don't know the full scope of an outbreak that has wiped out about a fifth of the turkey population in the nation's largest turkey-producing state.

The deadly virus is spreading in Minnesota by the day. Its toll more than doubled in the last week --55 turkey farms had been hit as of Monday, costing farmers more than 3 million birds. Infected flocks have been slated for slaughter faster than the state can euthanize them to contain the virus.

"We're dealing with a continuing, escalating situation," Dayton said.

The costs have increased drastically, too. While state agencies leading the response efforts originally asked for about $900,000, state budget officials said Monday they need $7.3 million over the next year.

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The extension approved Monday by the Democratic governor and his cabinet officials allows the state to continue overseeing a growing response plan. The federal government has sent in more than 100 staff to Minnesota, and Dayton has mobilized the National Guard to deliver water used in the euthanizing process.

But the state is still awaiting money from the Legislature. State House and Senate negotiators were due to meet Tuesday afternoon to iron out a compromise on some emergency funding. Lawmakers are also still trying to work out a contingency plan for state agencies to access emergency funds if the outbreak worsens over the spring, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said.

Dayton urged the Legislature to get it done quickly, and not by adding it into a larger budget bill that could stretch out the process and force the governor to agree to policy measures he dislikes.

"It's too important to get bound up in a lot of other agendas," he said.

With that funding comes the needed approval for the state to dole out federal funding to reimburse farmers whose flocks were euthanized. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, made the case to the federal government Monday that farmers should be paid for every bird lost -- including those that died from the virus.

Dayton said it may be years before the deadly outbreak is completely under wraps, but state officials insisted they're taking the right steps.

"We are in control," Department of Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson said.