Updated: 4:31 p.m. | Posted: 10:21 a.m.
State environmental regulators dealt a blow to the owners of a sow farm proposed for Fillmore County Tuesday when they denied a permit required to allow the farm project to move forward.
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency commissioner John Linc Stine announced that his agency would not allow the 4,800-head swine farrowing facility planned to be built near Newburg Township, Minn., to move forward, saying "it's time to take a more comprehensive look" at groundwater contamination in southeastern Minnesota.
The operation, proposed by Catalpa LLC, would include two barns, an animal composting building, a storm basin and a livestock watering well. It would generate an estimated 7.3 million gallons of liquid manure annually, which would be used as fertilizer on nearby cropland.
Opponents have raised concerns about manure getting into groundwater because of the area's sensitive karst topography, which can make groundwater more susceptible to contamination.
Stine echoed those concerns and also said an analysis of existing data on groundwater contamination gave him pause — testing by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture showed 19 townships in Fillmore County had wells with nitrate levels that don't meet the drinking water standard.
"We now have a lot more data on groundwater contamination than we've had in the past. And once you know something, you should act on the basis of it, not say that one more cut after 1,000 is acceptable," he said.
Stine is recommending the Environmental Quality Board — a body made up of several state agencies and citizens — oversee a broader study of groundwater contamination in the area before any similar projects move forward.
He declined to require an environmental impact statement for Catalpa's project as the Land Stewardship Project and a group of local residents had wanted. The environmental impact of nitrates in the delicate southeastern Minnesota geology, rife with sinkholes and caves, goes beyond a single farm, he said.
Data released by the MPCA earlier this year prompted a state expert and a University of Minnesota geologist to recommend further review for the Catalpa project, citing uncertainties about the existence of sinkholes. Sinkholes and disappearing springs are common in southeastern Minnesota, where porous limestone allows surface water to enter groundwater quickly.
Stine said the project's leaders, including a local land owner and an Iowa-based farm operator, could still apply for a different type of permit from the MPCA, but the project would likely have to take additional steps to reduce the risk of manure spills.
Al Hein, the landowner and a majority shareholder in Catalpa LLC, said he plans to apply for a new permit and is happy the MPCA did not order an EIS. "That would have had broad implications for animal agriculture in Minnesota," he said. Hein, who currently farms corn and soybeans, said low crop prices prompted his family to look for opportunities to diversify their business. He said modern farm technology, including monitoring equipment, can protect the environment.
Minnesota Department of Health commissioner Jan Malcolm issued a statement in support of the decision to deny the permit.
"Protecting drinking water is a top priority for public health, and preventing problems is much less expensive than addressing them after the fact," she said.
But Dayna Burtness, who raises hogs on a small farm near the proposed facility, told MPCA officials during a news conference that she was disappointed by the prospect of Catalpa applying for a different permit.
"We've been asking for an EIS. This feels like a dodge," she said.
An EQB study would be different from earlier environmental assessments of the project. Catalpa completed an Environmental Assessment Worksheet along with its permit applications, but neighbors and several environmental groups urged the MPCA to require a more intensive Environmental Impact Statement for the project — a level of review rarely required in Minnesota for a livestock operation.
A decision several years ago to require an EIS for a dairy farm resulted in the company putting the project on hold. In the legislative session that followed, Republican leaders abolished the MPCA Citizens Board that had made the decision. Decisions on whether to require environmental impact statements now rest with the MPCA commissioner.
Over the course of the permitting process, the Catalpa project received more than 700 letters of public comment, a volume that MPCA officials said hit record levels for such a project. Local community members in Newburg Township, located about 14 miles east of Harmony, have protested the project locally and in St. Paul. In late August, the Newburg Township board approved a yearlong moratorium on feedlots in response to the proposal.