Controversial feedlot expansion still needs county approval
by CHRIS ROGERS
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) just gave its blessing to the Daley Farms of Lewiston’s proposed dairy feedlot expansion. The proposal does not need more environmental study and it will receive state permits, MPCA officials announced on Friday afternoon. The state’s decision shifts the focus to Winona County, where the Daley Farms still needs two approvals from county officials.
The Daleys’ proposed expansion would more than double the size of the largest dairy herd in Winona County — from 1,608 cows and 120 calves (2,275.2 animal units) to 3,983 cows, 525 heifers, and 120 calves (5,967.7 animal units) — and it would generate 46 million gallons of manure annually. Hundreds of citizens opposed the expansion during public comment periods this fall, writing that applying so much manure to fields could contaminate aquifers and trout streams and that competing with the Daleys’ large operation would have a negative economic impact on small farmers and rural communities. Manure is one source of nitrate contamination, and in Utica Township, 20 percent of private drinking water wells tested exceeded the federal limit for nitrate pollution, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Hundreds of citizens urged the MPCA to require more study.
The Daley Farms completed one environmental study called an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) this fall. MPCA officials were charged with deciding whether to require a more in-depth environmental study called an environmental impact statement (EIS) and then whether to issue a state feedlot permit.
Three weeks ago, in a case with some parallels to the pending Daley Farms decision, MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine denied a permit application from a Fillmore County hog farm and recommended that the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB) conduct an EIS analyzing nitrate contamination across nearly all of Southeast Minnesota. At the time, Stine said that the nitrate pollution problem was not the fault of any one farm, but he added he was denying the hog farm permit because, “We now have a lot more data about 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 a thousand is acceptable.”
In his decision on the Daley Farms on Friday, Stine ruled that an EIS is not necessary because the Daley Farms expansion does not have the potential for significant environmental impacts. An MPCA spokesperson stated that state feedlot officers would soon issue a permit to the Daley Farms, as well. “The MPCA finds Daley has developed adequate measures in its [manure management plan] to prevent or mitigate potential water quality impacts,” state officials ruled.
The state permit for which the Daleys applied includes a special requirement that the Daleys go above and beyond normal state rules and employ at least two of the following practices to mitigate potential pollution: delaying fall manure applications until soil temperatures are below 50 degrees, adding a nitrogen stabilizing additive to manure applications, seeding cover crops in fields where manure is applied in the fall, applying manure in the spring, using split-applications of manure, and avoiding manure applications on areas with shallow bedrock. “The MPCA finds that the measures specified above will mitigate the potential for adverse impacts on groundwater quality related to manure incorporated at the manure application sites,” agency staff wrote. Because of those steps, the officials added, “the MPCA does not anticipate the project will contribute to any potentially significant adverse effects on water quality.”
“We are pretty excited. We’re happy,” Daley Farms Chief Financial Officer Shelly DePestel told the Winona Post. “We were pretty confident with the state process all along, that we would be approved for our permit. They have a lot of requirements and a lot of extensive processes that we had to go through, but obviously the science provided that we can do this and we can do this well. It’ll be good for our community and good for the environment.”
“It’s a terrible decision,” Land Stewardship Project (LSP) policy organizer Barb Sogn-Frank said. So many Southeast Minnesotans already have contaminated wells, and adding this much manure to the equation poses huge risks for the entire area, she stated. In his comments to the MPCA, Minnesota geologist Calvin Alexander wrote that, “Given the prominent karst features all around the Daley Farms’ site, the nearby catastrophic collapse of the Lewiston Waste Water Treatment Lagoon on similar karst stratigraphy, the documented growing nitrate pollution of Lewiston’s wells and many local wells, and the enormous size of this proposed CAFO, this facility should not be permitted at this site without a full-scale EIS.” Sogn-Frank said that Stine’s decision to recommend a regional EIS for all of Southeast Minnesota paid lip service to the problem of nitrate pollution. “He makes an effort to sound like he’s concerned,” Sogn-Frank stated. However, she said of the regional EIS, “There’s no teeth in it.” Sogn-Frank added, “We are worried for the county, and we want an MPCA that is going to follow the law and treat the public like its customers.”
The debate over the Daley Farms’ expansion is not over. The Daleys still need two approvals from Winona County. The expansion would require a variance — or exception — from the county’s rule limiting the size of feedlots to 1,500 animal units. The Daley Farms’ current 2,275-animal-unit operation was grandfathered in because it predated the county’s animal-unit cap, but to expand to the proposed nearly 6,000 animal units, the Daleys would need the county to grant an exception to that rule. The Winona County Board of Adjustment (BOA) considers variance requests. The county rarely receives variance requests of this magnitude.
The Daleys would also need a conditional use permit for their feedlot from the Winona County Board and Planning Commission.
On Tuesday, the Winona County Board will discuss citizen appointments to the Planning Commission and BOA. Asked if she was confident her family’s farm would receive the local approvals it needs, DePestel responded, “Maybe after next week, and we’ll see what happens.” She added that for now, her family is just celebrating the MPCA decision. “We’re going to take this as a nice victory by the people who are judging us by science,” she said.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.