MPCA commissioner hears concerns about swine facility

Al Hein addresses the crowd, explaining he values pure groundwater as much as everyone else. LISSA BLAKE/NEWS LEADER
By : 
Bluff Country Newspaper Group

Residents continue to demand environmental impact statement


“We still want an environmental impact statement.”

That message from Fillmore County residents rang loud and clear last week as they again packed the Mabel Area Community Center to reiterate their concerns to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) about a proposed 4,890-head swine facility in Newburg Township.

More than 250 people attended the three-hour public hearing, which was the public's first chance to hear from MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine in person. To date, his agency has received 771 comments on the project. The comment period closed Tuesday.

Prior to public comment, Stine's colleagues from the MPCA explained the results of two onsite investigations of the property where Al Hein and Catalpa LLC are proposing to construct the facility.

The two studies included a sinkhole investigation and Electromagnetic Resistivity Imaging (ERI).

According to a press release from the citzens' group Responsible Agriculture in Karst Country (RAKC), the two investigations have been widely criticized by geological experts and the Department of Natural Resources.


George Schwint, MPCA engineer, explained after excavating a potential sinkhole on the property near where the barns would be built, “all parties agreed the feature was not a sinkhole.”

He also explained the ERI process, where a subsurface picture is obtained by using a low-level electrical current to measure the resistance of the earth's materials.

“Hundreds of thousands of measurements are made during this process. ERI has been used at 15 or more feedlots since 2008,” said Schwint.

During the ERI process, it was determined there was a fracture in the bedrock directly under the area where Catalpa is proposing its stormwater retention area.

“The stormwater pond is proposed above a highly weathered area. As a result, they (Catalpa) will look at an alternative site for their stormwater pond,” he said. 

He added the test found no evidence of sinkhole development and no active karst hazard that should preclude construction.

“We found no unexpected feature identities,” he said. “There is no way to predict sinkholes except for other sinkholes in the area.”

Just as important

Following the explanation of the two surveys, project proposer Al Hein, said he has complied with every request that has been made by the MPCA.

“We all drink the same water and breathe the same air. Water quality is just as important to our family as it is to yours,” said Hein.

He went on to say no one cares about their soil more than farmers and discussed how animal agriculture can help sustain the soil.

Commissioner speaks

MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine is a hydrologist who holds a degree in soil and water management.

He thanked those present for their many comments on the matter.

“We asked for more data based on your comments. Thank you for speaking up. It helps us do our job and answer your questions,” he said.

Stine, who will be replaced at MPCA when the new governor takes office, said he is planning to make the decision about whether or not to order an environmental impact study and/or approve/deny the permit before his successor takes office.

“This process takes as long as it takes to make a decision, but by the end of this month or sooner, I'll have this decision made so the new guy doesn't have to,” said Stine.


Around 40 people addressed the MPCA, many passionate in their pleas for an EIS.

Ann Emery, who said a sinkhole near her family's well will likely necessitate the drilling of a new one, asked Martin Larsen to explain the MPCA investigations “in layman's' terms.”

Larsen, a farmer and president of the Minnesota Caving Club and Cave Preserve, said he felt the ERI study had a few “shortfalls.”

“It is a valuable tool, but it should be coupled with more detail,” he said, adding they should have gathered more than three lines of information.

During the comments, residents asked the MPCA repeatedly to “do their jobs” and order an EIS.

Pam Seebach said she has been harassed by the people behind the project for expressing her concerns.

“This is God's earth … The laws of Minnesota require you to order an EIS. Do the right thing,” she said.

Addressing the project developers, Dawn Johnson of Spring Grove said, “We're not trying to keep you from making money . . . If you ruin our water, we have nothing.”

Vance Haugen thanked the MPCA for its additional investigation, and said, “We don't get a do-over. If you pollute these aquifers, you're going to have 50 to 100 years of pumping it out.”

Other residents beckoned the MPCA to do additional studies of the karst features in all of the fields where the manure will be spread.

Steve McCargar of rural Decorah said, “This proposal is the textbook case for applying the precautionary principle,” and added there is already a cloud of ammonia over the state of Iowa.

He encouraged the commissioner to insist on the maximum amount of inspection of the site.

“It's your obligation. I hope you'll do it,” said McCargar.

Mark Woodward, Irene Fishburne and Michelle Hockersmith added tourism to the concerns being expressed.

“How does something of this nature impact tourism?” asked Woodward.

Loni Kemp, who used to work for the MPCA, called the two studies “an embarrassment and inept” and said they followed poor protocol.

“They falsely interpreted the poor data they did collect. The consultants were hired by the proposer, not by the MPCA. There could be bias there that would be solved in an EIS,” said Kemp. “We're glad you are looking at this. I think you have enough information to deny this permit and forget about the EIS.”

Bonita Underbakke said she wished to add her voice to those asking for a comprehensive EIS. “This should include extensive geotechnical testing as well as impacts to the aquifer, health, property values and the rural economy,” she said.

Carol Thompson next asked if the MPCA had any idea “how many millions of gallons of manure go onto frozen fields.”

MPCA permit writer Mark Gernes said although winter application of manure is restricted, his organization has to rely on the good behavior of farmers.

“You, as community members, if you see something, say something. You can file (a complaint) anonymously,” said Gernes.

Stine added he thinks about 97 percent of producers comply with their permits. “We have to rely on people to do their best,” he said.

Mark Spande responded, “There are good farmers and good people. I've seen deceptions, insults, threats, attempted bribes and lawsuits. In good conscience, how can you or anybody else believe they'll do their best?”

Stine and the MPCA will be issuing their ruling on an EIS and/or the permit by the end of the month.