Big Cow Factory on the Prairie

In Swift County, residents cry foul over a mega dairy and the state agency that can't say no

At first, Pete Kennedy didn't want to get involved. A lifelong resident of the western Minnesota community of Murdock--population 292--Kennedy knew that the political can quickly turn personal in a small town. So when he learned that some of his neighbors and their business partners were working on a plan to build an enormous, factory-style dairy operation in nearby Dublin township, he thought it best to keep quiet. "That's one of the hard parts of living in a smaller community," Kennedy explains. "You see these people every day and your kids go to school with their kids and you go to church with them. It's just kind of tough."

Besides, Kennedy figured, the proposed East Dublin Dairy would surely draw close scrutiny from regulators at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. After all, the feedlot would be the largest of its kind in the state: a 6,600-head operation that calls for the construction of two 1,300-foot-long barns, a large "milking parlor," and, most notably, a manure storage basin of unprecedented dimensions: roughly four football fields in length and one football field wide. The uncovered, clay-lined basin would be designed to store a year's worth of manure, or approximately 53 million gallons of liquid waste. Put another way, the basin would have the capacity to handle the sewage produced by a city with a population of 88,900 people.

But Kennedy's belief that the MPCA would require an extensive examination of the project's impact--a document known as an "environmental impact statement"--proved naive. Despite a raft of public comments expressing concern over the scale of the operation, the MPCA's citizen board--a nine-member body appointed by the governor--concluded that the project "does not have the potential for significant environmental impacts." The vote, at the board's October 25 meeting, was unanimous.

"It really surprised me," Kennedy says now. "This is going to be the largest dairy feedlot in the state. It's a couple miles away from two towns. It's close to some sensitive watersheds and it's close to some municipal water supplies. Why are they so afraid of an EIS?" To be sure, an EIS can be both time-consuming and quite expensive, sometimes running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But, Kennedy points out, that's relative chump change given the expected $30 million cost of the project.

Discouraged by the MPCA ruling, Kennedy and 10 neighbors banded together and formed a group called Swift County Citizens for Responsible Growth. In November, the group filed suit against the MPCA, asking a court to order an EIS on the project. If that tactic succeeds, it will be a rarity. Since the 1970s, the agency has only ordered an EIS for two feedlot operations. (On both occasions, the evaluations were ordered in the wake of lawsuits.)

Sheryl Corrigan, the commissioner of the MPCA and chair of the citizen's board, did not return a call seeking comment on the agency's decision on East Dublin and its protocols regarding an EIS. Through a public relations officer, she referred all queries to two veteran MPCA staffers--Wayne Anderson, who is the agency's agricultural liaison, and Jim Sullivan, a feedlot expert. Both Anderson and Sullivan defend the agency's decision-making regarding large feedlots. "We've done a good job of protecting the environment in the state," Anderson opines. "The industry just wants to make sure they're treated fairly and we want to accommodate that."

And what of critics' worries that the giant manure basin poses a threat to drinking water supplies and nearby creeks? "We're very comfortable [with this plan]," responds Sullivan. "This issue gets raised by people. But we've had a long history of construction of containment facilities for various types of waste and we understand the performance of those facilities." Sullivan adds that the risk of damaging leaks and spills from clay-lined earthen basins such as the one proposed for East Dublin is minimal.

That view is not universally held. Calvin Alexander, a geologist at the University of Minnesota who has been involved in past feedlot battles, contends that all clay liners are, in the long run, prone to failure. "It's insane. We learned this lesson in the '70s when we were trying to build hazardous waste landfills with liners. Liners don't work well and they never have," Alexander says. "They are prone to fissures and cracks. Talk to anyone who has tried to abandon one of these lagoons. You know, it's just crazy to look at projects like this as if they are ma-and-pa farms. These are industrial operations and should be regulated as such."

As Alexander sees it, the MPCA citizen board's handling of East Dublin Dairy is emblematic of a larger problem: an institutional bias toward big industry, both agricultural and nonagricultural. "The MPCA board has been very, very carefully stacked against environmentalists," Alexander contends. While he takes pains to note that there are some "very good, very concerned people at the MPCA," he says top administrators and board members just don't seem to be able to say no. "This is the Minnesota Pollution Licensing Agency," he adds. "Their goal is to grant permits and that's what they do."

Jim Peters, the attorney for Swift County Citizens for Responsible Growth, echoes Alexander's sentiments. In recent years, he contends, the Pawlenty administration and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture--fearing that the state's livestock industry is losing ground to states with less regulation--have consistently sought to promote Big Ag at the expense of traditional farmers. In fact, in the case of East Dublin, the Department of Agriculture has promised to kick in as much as $5,000 in grant money to assist in project planning. "In Minnesota there is strong support for family farms, so these big operations try to portray themselves as family farms," Peters says. "But it's all sleight of hand. These are operations where the animals are in total confinement, where they rarely if ever see the light of day or get into a pasture."

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