by CHRIS ROGERS
Tomorrow, the Winona County Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on proposed expansions that would add 5,358 pigs at two hog farms in St. Charles Township and produce a total of around 8.7 million gallons of manure per year. Northfield, Minn.,-based Holden Farms applied for a pair of conditional use permits (CUPs) from Winona County for the two feedlot expansions. The CUPs are among the last permits the two farms would need to expand, and Thursday’s hearing will be the primary opportunity for citizens to weigh in for or against those permits.
Earlier this year, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) reviewed an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) for the project, and many neighbors and citizens across the county spoke against the expansion, saying that field-spread manure from the feedlot expansions would pollute nearby trout streams, including the South Branch of the Whitewater River; seep through fractured bedrock and sinkholes to pollute groundwater; and that the hog barns themselves would create odor and air pollution problems. The local Win-Cres Chapter of Trout Unlimited expressed concern, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) warned that the sites had not been adequately surveyed for new sinkholes and that the added manure could runoff and cause a repeat of the 2015 fish kill that wiped out most of the trout in the South Branch of the Whitewater River.
The Preston, Minn.,-based National Trout Center requested that the project be reviewed by an administrative law judge in a contest case hearing. In a 32-page document, the MPCA ruled that if Holden Farms follows all of the rules for properly storing manure, not spreading more than soils and crops can absorb, not spreading manure next to sinkholes or streams, and injecting or immediately tilling in the manure, there should be no runoff or groundwater problems. “… [T]his project does not have the potential for significant environmental effects,” MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine wrote. The MPCA denied the National Trout Center’s contested case hearing request, saying that the trout center unfairly assumed that Holden Farms would violate state rules and improperly manage manure. The state agency also ruled that a more in-depth study, called an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), was not necessary.
Elba Township resident and geology consultant Jeff Broberg was one of the most outspoken critics of the hog farm expansions, and he, too, requested a contested case hearing, but he withdrew the request after Holden Farms revised its manure management plan to reduce the spreading of manure on the most sensitive areas.
Winona County staff recommended approval of both CUPs, pointing to Holden Farms’ efforts to prevent pollution, the MPCA’s positive review, and the Winona County Comprehensive Plan’s calls to promote agriculture. The St. Charles Town Board did not submit any comments to the county. After a recommendation from the Planning Commission, the Winona County Board will make a final decision — likely in early May — about whether to grant the CUPs.
The county has wide legal discretion to approve or deny CUPs, but it must consider whether the expansions would expose neighboring properties and natural features to “significant adverse impacts from noise, fumes, odors, glare, and surface and groundwater contamination” and whether the expansions “will be harmonious and in accordance with the goals and policies of the comprehensive plan.”
The Winona County Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed feedlot expansions on Thursday, April 20, at 7 p.m. on the second floor of the Winona County Government Center, 177 Main Street, in Winona.
The full agenda for tomorrow’s meeting, including more information on Holden Farms’ proposals, is available online at www.co.winona.mn.us, under “Agendas & Minutes” and “Planning Commission.”
The MPCA’s conclusions are available online at www.pca.state.mn.us/sites/default/files/p-ear2-124b.pdf.