Hog Tide

Tom Welna anchored his houseboat in the Mississippi just north of downtown St. Paul 15 years ago and has spent the meantime making his peace with the river. Like a dutiful lover, he's come to relish its patterns and moods, the soothing music of its waterway traffic, and its scent--a bit metallic during drought, and heady with musk after a hard rain. He's also learned something about the Mighty Miss's floozy side: the booze bottles, condoms, fast-food wrappers, and other debris that drift past his stern most days. Until last year, Welna believed he'd seen everything float down the river at least once, all without sullying its splendor. That was before the dead pigs started bobbing by.

To make sense of the swine invasion, Welna says, go back to 1993, when he and partner Ann Reeves bought a rickety steamer and rehabbed it into an eatery--The No Wake Café & Covington Inn. It's rigged with a few beds for overnighters and docked off Harriet Island just west of the Wabasha Bridge. Unlike its neighbors at the St. Paul Yacht Club marina, the No Wake isn't going anywhere soon: The engine room has been gutted, and it's anybody's guess whether the craft will ever set sail again. For now, the boat is moored in the shallows four miles south of the junction of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. At No Wake's parking spot, an adjacent dock and the boat's hull meet to form a V-shaped basin against the shore. Right there, Welna says, is where the crud and sludge carried by the current began collecting.

Soon after the café opened for business, Welna remembers, scummy foam drifting downstream--especially after a storm--would last for a day or so before dissolving. Even then, the odor was nauseating. "It smelled like dead animals and animal waste," he says. Last year, the foam started sticking around longer--four days on average, Welna says--and by this spring it had turned into a coating on the No Wake's bay waters from Monday at dawn through Friday evening. "What this suggests to me," Welna says, "is that somebody's dumping upstream on the weekends"--either in the Mississippi or the Minnesota, leaving folks to experience a kind of delayed sensory reaction downstream and days later.

Since 1972, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has been charged with keeping up the quality of rivers and lakes around the state--punishing litterbugs, remedying spills, investigating fish kills and the like. Still, a short six years ago the national conservation group American Rivers found that the Minnesota was one of 20 rivers in the U.S. "most endangered by pollution." In short order, Gov. Arne Carlson signed something called the Clean River Initiative, with his pledge that within a decade kids could again swim safely in the Minnesota and anglers could eat their own catch without fear.

When Welna contacted the MPCA in March 1997 about the suspicious froth engulfing his diner, he says the agency simply dismissed his concerns. "They told me it was just river foam," he recalls. "But I've lived on this river for 15 years and I know the difference between river foam and sewage foam." Welna continued to keep a vigilant eye on the current, and was soon rewarded: "One day, a whole piglet came down on the river side of the boat. It was bloated, had its head down, and was about a foot and a half long."

In its wake he spotted more intact oinkers drifting by, as well as such swine parts as cloven hooves, flanks, and sundry picnic makings. "I'd thought that resorts further north had been emptying their sewage lines," Welna says, "but now I began to suspect that some farm was dumping."

Lynn Lokken of the Land Stewardship Project, an environmental watchdog group, concurs. "The Minnesota River is a major tributary to the Mississippi, and it has a lot of agricultural land," she says, adding that the Environmental Protection Agency points to corporate and private farm operations as the nation's chief source of water pollution. But proving Welna's theory is a tricky proposition, Lokken says, especially since the MPCA has repeatedly failed to monitor feedlots throughout the state and along the Minnesota's many tributaries. She and other clean-water advocates are far from confident about the agency's willingness to crack down on agricultural polluters.

In June, alarmed by another menagerie of buoyant piglets, Welna again phoned the MPCA. This time the agency agreed to investigate. "The pig report had us concerned," recalls Jerry Flom, a water-quality specialist with the MPCA. However, Flom says, all investigators had to go on were Welna's observations: "He hadn't saved any of the parts or the pigs that were supposed to have floated by." In addition, employees at the neighboring yacht club report that they haven't seen any swine hogging space in their private waters. Welna says that's because their docks don't jut far enough into the river to snag the porkers from the current. About his lack of hard evidence, Welna counters that it's not his job to investigate on behalf of the MPCA. "I run a restaurant," he says, "and it's not going to look good to my customers if I start fishing dead pigs out of the river in front of them."

Flom hastens to add that he isn't doubting Welna's word. Rather, he figures the several swine sightings for freak occurrences. "Hopefully it was a fluke," Flom says. "Either some piglets got washed away, or someone threw a bunch of piglets in the water." Right now, he concludes, "It's too tough to speculate about what could have occurred. There's a lot of possible scenarios"--for one, that a commercial pork farm upstream on either river is in the business of disposing of waste in the water. "We'd have to devote ourselves full time to that search," Flom says, "and we just don't have the resources."

In any case, when the MPCA visited the No Wake just over a month ago foul foam was clearly visible in the shallows. Welna says agency workers bottled up a sample and promised to test it. Flom acknowledges that a sample was indeed scooped from the river, but the agency opted against analyzing it. "Foam is a natural phenomenon," he points out, "and when we looked at the sample, basically all we saw was some dirt and crud in it, along with algae."

But potentially hazardous bacteria isn't apparent to the naked eye. So City Pages took the liberty of delivering a sample of river water taken off No Wake's dock to a private lab for testing last week. The battery of tests run by Wayne Mattsfield, a microbiologist at New Brighton-based Spectrum Labs, included one for fecal coliform (the bacterial marker for human and animal feces) and another for heterotrophic plate count (which estimates the total bacteria present). By Mattsfield's estimate, the test results fall within "acceptable levels"; however, the results indicate that the foam is created by bacteria and not by soaps or chemical agents. But in order to get an "accurate assessment," he suggests repeated testing of various sites.

A few days later, during a visit to the No Wake Café and nearby shoreline, we found two festering rats amid the garbage and dead fish in a pool of stinking foam. "That's not normal," concedes Flom, who goes on to add, "I guess we should try to get down there and have a look at the river again." Before, Tom Welna hopes, another perished piglet happens by.

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