Streamlined and Annotated Version of the Minnesota Water Quality Article

1. Dogs have died, children have been sickened by blue green algae in Red Rock Lake.

STAR TRIBUNE:
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is asking swimmers to be aware of algae-ridden lakes and foul-smelling water this holiday weekend after toxins from the blue-green blooms hospitalized a child and killed two dogs near Alexandria, Minn., last month.

There are no more swimmable lakes in southwestern Minnesota, a 1,783-square-mile stretch that spans six counties. Dangerous levels of phosphorous, nitrogen, and bacteria like E. Coli will take decades to clean up, says the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The problem extends along our southern border, where rampant pollution threatens the safety of drinking water.

Most studies suggest that farming bears substantial responsibility for some forms of water pollution. The exhaustive Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework, commissioned by the Legislature and released earlier this year by University of Minnesota researcher Deborah Swackhamer, attributes a third of all phosphorus and three-quarters of all nitrates in Minnesota waters to agricultural practices.

2. “A standard 2,400-head hog barn can produce upward of 45,000 pounds of liquid manure each day.”  This checks out. [xls file] Swine Manure Calculator – Iowa State University Extension

3. Protective agencies are being stripped of power, while ag groups are commanding the purse strings of public funds.

4. Trom Eayrs family has farmed a fertile slice of God’s country an hour south of the Twin Cities since the 1800s. Trom Eayrs’s great-grandfather built the 10-pew Lutheran church in Westfield Township in 1917.

The Trom family isn’t interested in quitting.

But they’re fighting a losing battle. Another feedlot, the 11th within three miles of their 760-acre farm, just squeezed onto a neighboring parcel. The clean white barn belies the swarm of 2,400 hogs stirring within.

Before the 1960s, hogs were raised outside, given free rein to root in fields and cool themselves in the shallows of mud pits. The rule of thumb was an acre of pasture per every 10 hogs. Factory farming shatters that standard.

The new feedlot next door packs thousands on just six acres. Sonja Trom Eayrs, Lowell’s daughter, predicts owner Nick Masching will put in another barn soon, bringing 4,800 hogs to land “the size of a postage stamp.”

The Masching family owns roughly 20,000 hogs in Westfield Township, dwarfing a human population of just 421. Last year, the Troms sued Masching to keep the feedlot out, citing health and water safety while claiming the county fast-tracked approval without planning for the tons of manure the facility would produce.

A judge ignored the Troms’ concerns, asking only that the Maschings complete a waste management plan. In the rubber-stamp counties of southern Minnesota, there’s scant concern over concentrating thousands of animals, though they produce one of Minnesota’s leading pollution threats: liquid manure, more than 45,000 pounds a day.

5. Animal waste is a powerful fertilizer, but only if you have enough land to use it. Feedlots typically don’t. They collect the liquid in giant concrete basins or open pit lagoons, then distribute it to neighbors.

State records show the myriad ways this can all go bad: pump failures, leaky hoses, and stormwater overflow dump thousands of gallons of manure into waterways.

Last year, Luoma Egg Ranch, a large factory farm south of Duluth, was fined $95,000 for allowing chicken excrement and waste eggs to flow into Medicine Creek. Inspectors repeatedly found manure bubbling from a manhole at the farm, tracing it nearly a mile away to a stream full of dead vegetation and fecal matter.

STAR TRIB:

Luoma Egg Ranch, an egg producer near Finlayson, Minn., was fined $95,000 by state pollution regulators for violations stemming from chicken manure spills.

Luoma failed to report and attempted to cover up the liquid manure discharges from its egg-laying operation, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said Tuesday. The company also improperly disposed of dead chickens, another violation.

The $95,000 fine is one of the largest levied by the pollution agency in the past two years. Luoma also must take corrective actions to address the violations.

There have been 128 spills in Minnesota since 2007.

6. Unfortunately, over-applied manure and other fertilizers are a prime source for southern Minnesota’s water problems, says the MPCA. Storms wash out the soil, driving bacteria and chemicals into lakes and rivers.

7. Worse, the feedlots near the Troms aren’t even monitored by the state. Roughly half of Minnesota’s counties regulate their own feedlots. Clearance comes from county commissioners, often feedlot operators themselves.

8. In Dodge County, only 10 percent of the 234 registered feedlots are inspected each year. Trom Eayrs found that only 15 percent had submitted necessary plans for dealing with the rivers of liquid manure they produce.

9. Wayne Cords warned his audience to look away.

“Some of these photos are graphic,” he said. “If you don’t have a strong stomach or you just ate lunch, don’t look at the pictures too close.”

The screen filled with the carnage from a barn fire that wiped out 400 sows, which were buried in a shallow pit. One photo showed “decomposition juices” oozing to the surface.

Cords, a feedlot supervisor from Mankato, was speaking at a 2013 Minnesota Pollution Control Agency hearing. the commodity ag industry arrived in full force, hoping to keep the agency from regulating the disposal of dead animals. But Cords’s pig pile proved how easily they can spoil surface waters.

At the time, Minnesota was grappling with a deadly epidemic of porcine diarrhea virus, which wiped out 8 million piglets across the country. After the MPCA made its case, the commodity ag industry offered a parade of rebuttal.

First came Gary Koch of Gislason and Hunter, Minnesota’s go-to lawyer for farm-friendly litigation. Then came Perry Aasness of Agri-Growth, a lobbying group, followed by David Preisler of the Minnesota Pork Producers. It was as if the whole deli aisle had risen to speak, featuring execs from the cattle, dairy, and turkey industries.

 

They stuck to the party line: They wanted feedlot permits granted faster with fewer hurdles. They wanted to curb the state’s right to oversee the biggest feedlots. They wanted the MPCA to butt out of the disposal of dead animals.

Aasness argued there was “little evidence that these proposed changes would provide any real environmental benefits.” Worse, the rules kept farmers from being competitive with neighboring states.

10. Then a farmer from one of those neighboring states took the floor. Chris Petersen, a hog producer from Clear Lake, Iowa, had a message for Minnesota.

“Being so close to Minnesota, I think highly of your state,” he announced. “I have fished up here many times. Beautiful state. I would like to see it stay that way. I look at what’s going on in Iowa. We are 49th in water quality. I’m ashamed. We have more impaired waterways in Iowa than we did a year ago. I’m ashamed. I don’t want to see that happen in other states.”

Iowa, after all, offered a coming attraction of what the commodity ag industry had planned for Minnesota. This spring, Des Moines Water Works, the state’s largest water utility, sued three northwestern counties to force farmers to comply with clean water standards.

GAZETTE (Cedar Rapids):

Of the 50 states, Iowa ranks 49th in the percentage of land in state and federal ownership, according to U.S. statistics.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources reports that the number of polluted rivers, lakes, and streams is up 15 percent in the last two years. Bacteria from manure spills or leaks is largely to blame.

DES MOINES REGISTER:

The number of Iowa lakes, rivers and streams impaired by pollution has climbed 15 percent in two years, according to a new state report, prompting environmental groups to say the state’s efforts to reduce pollution aren’t working.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources plans to report 725 impaired water bodies to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this summer. The last time a report was filed in 2012, there were 630 impaired waterways.

States must compile impaired waters reports every two years under the Clean Water Act.

Two of the most frequently cited problems for rivers and streams are bacteria and fish kills, largely the result of manure spills or waste storage leaks from large-scale hog or cattle operations.

For lakes, the most commonly identified impairments are excess algae, too much suspended sediment and bacteria — all of which indicate the presence of human or animal waste. Algae blooms occur with large concentrations of nitrates and phosphorous from manure on farm fields or leaking septic tanks or industrial and city waste treatment plants.

Iowa’s robust agricultural economy — leading the nation in pork and egg production — presents a challenge dealing with manure generated by more than 20 million hogs and 60 million chickens, although the flock in the last month has shrunk by 40 percent from a deadly strain of bird flu.

It’s also tops in corn production, a crop that needs an abundance of nitrogen fertilizer to maximize yields. Yet, the nutrient can leach into rivers, causing high nitrate levels. It also can leach into lakes, contributing to toxic algae blooms.

11. In 1968, Schwandt, then Minnesota’s commissioner of Agriculture, founded Agri-Growth to connect the commodity ag industry with legislators, so that “those engaged in agriculture would be best served.”

Today, the group (is) the state’s only organization “solely devoted” to building a pro-business path for ag. Its mission: to “urge the Legislature to eliminate whenever possible regulatory and legislative restrictions” that keep Minnesota from competing in the big bad world of mass food production.

Its roster includes Monsanto, Cargill, Land O’ Lakes, Pfizer, and Hormel, not to mention banks, lawyers, and chemical companies.

“They represent corporate interests,” says the Minnesota Environmental Partnership’s Steve Morse. “They’re the big guys. They have a lot of influence.”

In 2013, Agri-Growth joined A Greater Minnesota, a new nonprofit linking the state’s key agribusiness groups. It included the leaders of every large commodity group — from the Milk Producers to the Corn Growers, in addition to the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation, an anti-regulation lobbying group that represents some 30,000 state farmers.

First on its agenda was bringing that parade of executives to the MPCA’s feedlot hearing.

Despite their united front, the MPCA refused to back down.

So A Greater Minnesota decided to go over the agency’s head. It decided to take control of the Minnesota legislature.

Last year, the group introduced a splashy website with the goal of “candidate education.” It rolled out a five-point pledge, asking legislators to support all farms, big and small.

A Greater Minnesota also asked legislators to oppose GMO labeling, advocate “best practices” in animal welfare, and support “responsible regulation and voluntary practices.” The gentle phrasing of “best practices” and “voluntary practices” softened the group’s essential plea: Trust us, Minnesota. We can regulate ourselves.

The results were promising. Sixty-five candidates signed the pledge. When election results rolled in, the picture was even rosier: The 35 “Five-Star Pledgers” who were elected to office included the chairs of five key committees in the House of Representatives.

A Greater Minnesota was about to ask for a blank check for the commodity ag industry. House Republicans, now in the majority, were happy to sign it.

12. If the ag industry thought they had a mandate coming out of the 2014 election, so did environmentalists. Gov. Mark Dayton staked his reputation on protecting the state’s water. He used the troubling condition of southern Minnesota’s water to call for a 50-foot buffer of vegetation around all of Minnesota’s lakes, rivers, and streams.

But Dayton’s landmark protection was dead on arrival. John Marty, a bookish, bowtied DFLer from Roseville, carried the bill in the Senate. Republican Paul Torkelson volunteered to lead it in the House.

Torkelson just happens to be a pork farmer from Hanska and an Agri-Growth member. He and his fellow Republicans — along with select rural DFLers — railed against Dayton’s “one-size-fits-all” bill. Ag groups rallied the troops, turning out to confront Dayton at town hall meetings across the state.

“Clean water is a very emotional issue,” wrote Joe Smentek, director of environmental affairs for Minnesota Soybean. “But we should not push through legislation that may do nothing more than make some people feel good.”

“I don’t have a feeling,” says environmental chemist Deborah Swackhamer of the University of Minnesota. “I have a factual understanding. There’s quite a lot of science showing that even just a 50-foot buffer, which isn’t very big, will on average remove a significant portion of nitrates in the water that runs through that buffer. It’s a nice, big bang for your buck.”

The the commodity ag industry blowback denied Dayton. Legislators effectively trimmed and neutered his simple approach. The bill they passed gave farmers discretion on the size and location of buffer strips. Violations would be treated with a laughable $500 fine… and only for farmers who had not complied for 11 straight months.

“What was really frustrating about this was the stonewalling of the whole thing,” says Morse. “The governor came out and looked at the data, looked at what’s happening to our waters, and was very clear that we have some problems with our agricultural systems here and they have to do their part to clean up our water. Basically ag said no and has moved very little from that position.”

Republican Rep. Dan Fabian from Roseau summed up Dayton’s fatal misstep: “He was willing to do what no other agricultural state governor was willing to do and that is go toe to toe with agriculture.”

Lowell Trom has had buffers on his farm for decades “because it makes sense…. The folks fighting it, they shouldn’t have to be told to put in buffers. They should know enough to do it on their own. But they’re greedy.”

13. As the last line of defense for Minnesota’s environment, the Citizens’ Board had long been in the crosshairs of the ag industry. But the final straw came when it took on a 9,350-cow dairy farm last August.

The proposed farm drew complaints from Stevens County residents concerned about hydrogen sulfide, a gas that comes from liquid manure lagoons and causes headaches, nausea, eye irritation, and respiratory problems. There wasn’t enough land to apply all the manure the dairy would produce. Nor was there enough groundwater to support the operation.

The Citizens’ Board overruled the MPCA, mandating a review of the dairy’s effects on water, air, and land. Riverview dropped its proposal altogether.

The state’s largest single milk producer, Riverview already has five mega dairy operations here, plus farms in South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Arizona. Workers, mostly laborers on temporary visas procured by Riverview’s recruiter in Mexico, live in housing on-site. In 2012, the company received Agri-Growth’s Distinguished Service Award.

The commodity ag industry was furious with the Citizens’ Board decision.

It lobbied to cut the board’s power and limit its authority to order environmental reviews. In the end, Republican Rep. Denny McNamara of Hastings and Iron Range DFL Senator David Tomassoni pushed through a bill to abolish the board.

“Getting rid of that Citizens’ Board doesn’t make any sense,” says Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union. “It’s worked for how many years? And now, because we had one large dairy that didn’t like it, so they hired lobbyists to come in and change that law?”

Sen. John Marty watched in horror. Abolishing the Citizens’ Board had never been debated. But as the legislative session closed, it was jammed through at the last minute.

MINNPOST:

But it was the Citizens’ Board that took the harder hit. By saying “no” to Riverview, the board had said “no” to the commodity ag industry.

In the Minnesota Legislature, it’s an unpopular thing to say no to the commodity ag industry. Republican lawmakers, with approving nods from DFLers from the Iron Range, were angered by the board’s independence and quietly went about the business of writing the Citizens’ Board out of existence in the environment-agriculture budget bill. Though Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the bill, he has indicated, in the name of compromise, he will accept the language that eliminates the board in exchange for changes in other parts of the bill.

“There were no hearings on this,” said Steve Morse, who is a former legislator, a former high-ranking official in the Department of Natural Resources and who now is the head of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership. “As far as I can tell, there was no case ever made for why this should happen. If it does happen, it’s a happy day for those who pollute.”

“Agribusiness wanted to get rid of it, and so they got rid of it,” says Marty. “This was supposed to be a state budget bill, funding for agencies. Not a garbage collection of every kind of policy, some good, mostly bad that somebody wants to slip in there and hold the budget hostage over.”

14. The bill included a the commodity ag industry wish list pitched by House Republicans. They raided environmental funds set aside for landfill cleanup, and raised the agriculture budget by $37.8 million dollars. They demanded the MPCA back up all water quality standards by hiring outside scientists and business folks to prove their worth. They granted amnesty to feedlots that spill liquid manure into waterways so long as they self-report their violations.

The bill also put $8.5 million in research grants directly in the hands of the 22-member Ag Transfer board, which is dominated by industry representatives.

“It’s pretty clear that the items that weren’t supported by large ag interests got stripped out,” says Morse. “It’s a dangerous precedent.”

Dayton didn’t like the smell of that “garbage collection.” He vetoed the bill, writing that it “undermines decades of environmental protections.” But Dayton’s veto was a finger in the dike. House Republicans weren’t backing down.

As the special session neared at the beginning of June, the commodity ag industry-backed lawmakers refused to give ground. The Citizens’ Board had to go, they said. Any water standards would be subject to cost-effectiveness scrutiny. And the buffer bill would remain a shadow of Dayton’s original proposal.

Faced with the prospect of a government shutdown, Dayton signed a bill he hated, admitting that it would unwind years of environmental protection.

In the view of the commodity ag industry, however, it was cause for celebration. Representative Torkelson was a guest speaker at an Agri-Growth luncheon last month, where he boasted of neutering the governor’s buffer bill. “The original bill had the DNR drawing buffers on a map and telling landowners, ‘You do this or we’ll fine you.’ We’re a long, long, long way from that.”