by CHRIS ROGERS
Daley Farm of Lewiston will get a state permit to expand its dairy feedlot, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) announced on Friday. Now, the only thing blocking the Daley Farm’s expansion is Winona County.
The amount of greenhouse gases the dairy expansion will contribute to the atmosphere does not merit a more intensive study called an environmental impact statement (EIS), and the MPCA’s previous assessment of the water pollution risks still stands: there is no significant risk, MPCA officials said. “Given the conditions imposed in the feedlot permit, we still don’t expect the Daley Farm's project to be adding additional nitrates to groundwater,” MPCA Environmental Review Program Manager Melissa Kuskie stated.
"I’m pretty disappointed right now," said rural Altura resident Tim Ahrens, whose parents are among the many local people whose well water is contaminated with high levels of nitrates. "Minnesotans want factory farms to be evaluated by the process the law both requires and provides,” Ahrens stated — meaning, conducting EISs for projects that risk significant environmental impacts. To hear the MPCA say there is no risk of significant impacts, he added, "At this point, all you can be is utterly confused about what direction the MCPA is taking.”
Ben Daley said he was pleased the state reviewed his family's proposal based on science. "They have standards they go by, and they went by those standards," he stated.
Approval comes after hundreds urged denial
For the past two years, many local citizens have opposed the project because they see the 46 million gallons of manure that would be stored and spread on local farm fields as a huge risk to local aquifers already contaminated with unsafe levels of nitrate — a byproduct of nitrogen in fertilizer, manure, and human waste.
Following a detailed study called an environment assessment worksheet (EAW), the MPCA approved the project once already in 2019. Its pollution and manure management experts reviewed the Daleys’ plan and determined that, because of management practices to minimize pollution risk, the expansion would not threaten water quality, did not pose any significant environmental risk, and could be permitted without an EIS.
However, environmental groups including the Land Stewardship Project (LSP) sued, challenging that decision. The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the MPCA’s decision-making on water quality concerns, but dinged the agency for not including greenhouse gas emissions in its EAW. The court ordered the MPCA to correct that.
So, the MPCA redid its EAW this spring with new information on how many carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) the expansion would contribute to global climate change — an extra 20,300 tons of CO2e annually — and went through a new round of public comments.
Hundreds of citizens from across Minnesota — and some outside the state — wrote to the MPCA this spring, urging it deny the Daley Farm expansion. Under former commissioner John Linc Stine, the MPCA made a terrible mistake by ignoring the water quality risks and approving this project in 2019, many wrote, urging the MPCA’s new commissioner, Laura Bishop, to correct that mistake. Others commented in support of the Daleys, arguing the expansion was critical to the rural economy, the added perennial alfalfa cultivation would actually help the environment, and a vocal minority of environmental activists were unfairly vilifying the Daley Farm.
Citizens also saw economic and social implications from farm expansions like the Daley’s. On one side, some argued that allowing bigger and bigger dairy farms at a time when milk is already being overproduced and underpriced is a recipe for destroying small farms and rural communities. On the other, some said that allowing dairies to grow is the only way they and the rural communities that depend on them will survive.
MPCA: nitrate concerns were already debunked
Announcing their decision that an EIS is not necessary and a permit will be granted to the Daleys, MPCA leaders said they focused solely on greenhouse gas emissions. “The decision against an environmental impact statement or an EIS focused only on the new information, so only on the greenhouse gas calculations … because the court found there was no fault with the agency’s initial environmental review with the exception of the greenhouse gases,” MPCA Assistant Commissioner for Water and Agriculture Policy Katrina Kessler said. In other words, the only thing wrong with the first EAW was the lack of greenhouse gas information, so that’s all the MPCA looked at when making its new decision.
There are no limits for how much CO2e any kind of facility can emit in Minnesota, but there is a state rule — which does not apply to feedlots — that projects that would produce over 100,000 tons of CO2e annually must go through an EAW, Kessler noted. Obviously, the Daley’s expansion is way under that threshold, and the farm already completed an EAW anyway. “So reasonably, the conclusion is that [the Daley Farm expansion] wouldn’t even warrant an EAW under existing rules; we’re not seeing a need for an EIS,” Kessler stated.
What about water quality? MPCA officials gave somewhat mixed signals on whether they would consider anything other than greenhouse gases in this new review. On the one hand, MPCA staff told citizens at a public informational meeting in February to focus on greenhouse gases; the courts had already upheld the MPCA’s decision on water quality and only new information on greenhouse gases would be considered in this review. On the other hand, Kessler and MPCA Section Manager Melissa Kuskie told the Winona Post in an interview early this year that new information on water quality could be considered, too.
Some citizens, like Winona physician Chuck Sheppard, told the MPCA there is new information about the extent of nitrate pollution in Southeast Minnesota and agriculture’s role in it.
“I understand that the staff evaluated all of that and found, in essence, there wasn’t anything new that wouldn’t have been covered under the previous iteration of the environmental assessment worksheet,” Kessler said. Kessler noted that the Minnesota Court of Appeals did not have a problem with the MPCA’s water quality analysis. “So all of the concerns over drinking water and nitrate were addressed in the original EAW and the initial permit,” she stated.
For concerned citizens, the groundwater issue seems simple: more manure equals more pollution risk. However, MPCA officials said the Daleys’ permit requires them to do a number of things that may reduce or, at least, won’t increase the amount of nitrate pollution entering local aquifers.
The Daleys already plant and have agreed to plant more cover crops, which reduce runoff and help hold on to nutrients like nitrogen and prevent them from leaching down into the bedrock and groundwater, MPCA Southeast Feedlot Unit Supervisor Steve Schmidt said. The Daleys will follow University of Minnesota-recommended application rates for how much manure should be applied to specific fields, they will use nitrification inhibitors in the fall — a chemical that prevents nitrogen from turning into a leach-prone form — and they will wait for temperatures under 50 degrees to apply manure, another pollution-preventing best management practice (BMP), he said. The Daley Farms’ permit requires the farm to practice several BMPs, but for some BMPs, gives the Daleys their choice of which ones to implement from a list of options.
Most importantly, while this project will produce a lot more manure, that manure will actually replace another, potentially more potent pollution source: synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, MPCA staff stated. “This is all actively farmed land that is all receiving nitrogen from some source,” MPCA Feedlot Program Manager Randy Hukriede said of the fields where the Daley Farm’s manure will be applied. “Probably the dominant source in that area has been commercial fertilizer. So what the manure is doing is [being a substitute for] some of that commercial fertilizer and replacing it with manure. It’s not really adding to the amount of nitrogen manure, it’s just replacing commercial fertilizer with manure.”
Ultimately, the Daley’s proposal meets all the regulations the MPCA has, Kessler stated.
LSP organizer Barb Sogn-Frank called the MPCA's decision "a great disservice to Minnesotans," saying the agency ignored both the risk the groundwater and "an unprecedented public outcry."
Legal battle with county ahead, but virus may rule out actual expansion for a time
While it has won state approval, the Daley Farm still needs local approval for its expansion.
Winona County’s zoning ordinance puts a limit on farm size: no more than 1,500 animal units (1,071 cows) per feedlot. Last year, the Winona County Board of Adjustment (BOA) denied the Daleys’ request for a variance — or exception — to that rule, and by a 3-2 margin, the Winona County Board has repeatedly declined to change the animal unit cap.
The Daleys are suing the county over the BOA’s decision, arguing BOA members were biased against them. The lawsuit has been on hold because of the MPCA’s EAW do-over, but it can now proceed. The Daleys are optimistic about their chances. If the Daley Farm wins the lawsuit, the feedlot expansion would still require one more permit: a conditional use permit (CUP) from Winona County.
However, a bigger issue is darkening what would otherwise be an exciting moment for the Daleys.
“It’s bittersweet,” Ben Daley said. After years of effort, his family is finally getting closer to its goal, but it comes at the same time that dairy consumption is falling dramatically since the COVID-19 outbreak. Prices have plummeted, and some farmers cannot even sell their milk, period, and have been forced to dump it.
“Even if we went through Winona County, and got a permit today, still nothing is going to happen. We wouldn’t be building anything at this point, but in the future, when things get rolling again and when things recover and things get back to some sense of normalcy,” Daley said. He explained, “If we got our permit today, who knows? Our cooperative might not even want the milk. Every cooperative is struggling to find homes or other places to sell it.”
So even if they got the final permit today, the Daleys might not exercise those permits right away and actually construct their expansion. However, the expansion is something the Daleys have been planning since at least 2014, and while the new coronavirus pandemic is putting a lot of dreams on hold, Daley said winning permission to expand is still part of their long-term strategy.