Hog feedlot proposal rejected in effort to save Minnesota groundwater

Those 5,000 pigs will have to wait.

Those 5,000 pigs will have to wait. Getty Images/iStockphoto

The vast majority of Newburg Township residents got what they wanted for Christmas this year.

A proposal for a new feedlot to be built nearby, which would have housed about 5,000 pigs and produced more than 7 million gallons of liquid pig poop every year, has been denied by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).

And it’s not because the manure might have made the township smell like pig poop, although that was among the Fillmore County residents’ chief concerns. (The proposal received an unprecedented 700 or so public comments.) MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine explained in a press release that the decision wasn’t actually about this proposed feedlot -- at least, not entirely.

The decision was based on some new, extensive data the Minnesota Department of Agriculture produced last year on groundwater, nitrates, and a kind of porous rock called karst.

That may sound intimidating or painfully boring, so here’s the quick version. For the first time, thanks to this new data, the Ag Department knows which areas in Minnesota have the groundwater most vulnerable to pollution by nitrates -- a compound found in, among other things, fertilizers and animal wastes. It can be dangerous, especially for infants and older adults.

Fillmore County -- and indeed, a swath of six adjacent counties in southeast Minnesota -- is one of those high-risk, “geologically sensitive” areas. It’s built on a foundation of swiss cheese-like karst, which doesn’t provide much of a filter for pollutants. In some areas, water falling on the surface can seep straight into the groundwater in a matter of minutes.

Which means Fillmore County -- a place where 19 out of 24 townships have private wells at or above the healthy limit for nitrates -- might be in trouble if anything catastrophic happened to, say, an underground concrete storage container full of 7 million gallons of liquid manure.

This was the first big feedlot application in Fillmore since this data has come out, Stine said in the press release. This issue is “bigger” than any one feedlot, any one farm. He’s recommending an extensive study of the whole region’s groundwater, paid for by the state.

Which leaves Al Hein, the applicant for the proposed Catalpa Ag feedlot, thwarted for the moment, but not totally out of the picture. He can still apply for something called a “customized” or “individual” permit, which would require a more rigorous analysis of the feedlot’s potential risks, but could make the feedlot a reality anyway. He totd KSTP that’s exactly what he’s going to do.

But for now, Newburg Township residents can rest a little easier knowing the blow they’ve been waiting to fall won’t… at least, not yet.