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It's an old argument with a new twist. Which is more important: economics or the environment? As new technologies have emerged, some people criticize the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) for favoring the economics of new ventures and ignoring the serious environmental questions posed by emerging industries. All this week we'll look at specific cases, including animal feedlots, expanding potato farms, and a new ethanol plant. In some cases, the concerns center around how a variety of state and federal agencies work together - or don't - to protect our environmental resources.
We begin our series of reports with an issue that's received a lot of attention recently. Opponents of large livestock feedlots say the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has ignored health problems created by those operations. They're especially concerned with air pollution. This spring, for the first time, the MPCA documented hydrogen sulfide emissions from a hog farm which violated state law. Opponents call it vindication, but wonder if the MPCA will take vigorous action to bring the feedlot into compliance.
SINCE IT STARTED SEVEN YEARS AGO IN RENVILLE COUNTY, the ValAdCo Cooperative, a high-tech hog farm, has seen remarkable growth: annual sales of $23 million, 130 farmer members, and 65 full-time employees. The company is a major addition to a county worried about economic decline. But that growth has a price. Neighbors say ValAdCo's barns and manure lagoons stink.
Julie Jansen: This, to me, smells like pigs, coming off the fans. But up further, it smells like a backed-up sewer.
Walking on a gravel road Julie Jansen uses a hydrogen sulfide analyzer to measure emissions from a ValAdCo hog site flanking the road. The readings vary dramatically, depending on where she stands. After several tries, she finds the heart of the bad air.
Jansen: And that's enough to gag a maggot, and it's five parts below the legal limits.
Jansen lives a little more than a mile from two ValAdCo sites and says when the wind blows her way feedlot gases make her home practically unlivable. To back up her claim, she and friends bought the air analyzer two years ago. They routinely found hydrogen sulfide levels which violate state standards. Those findings were a major reason the legislature and the MPCA decided to act on feedlot air quality questions. She applauds the MPCA's conclusion that ValAdCo violated state air pollution laws, but wonders when the air in her house will improve.
Jansen: We had a meeting with the MPCA, and I said, "You know, until you actually do something, I'm not going to believe you will do anything. For three years you have just been doing as little as you could." In my opinion these things should be shut down.
It's not likely any feedlot will ever be shut down. MPCA Air Quality Division manager Mike Sandusky says that ultimate regulatory tool can only be used in a few cases.
Sandusky: There is a statute that stipulates we have the authority to have a facility cease and desist. But it's only under the circumstances of imminent threat to the public health.
Jansen and others say feedlot emissions cause an assortment of medical problems: headaches, sore throats, nausea. State health officials say hydrogen sulfide levels observed near feedlots are a concern, but not an immediate health threat. State law gives the MPCA leeway in dealing with problem feedlots, saying only the agency must "take appropriate actions necessary to ensure compliance." No timelines are recommended or required. The MPCA's Sandusky says the agency will move with "all due speed" to bring ValAdCo into compliance. He says the agency and the hog company will negotiate an agreement to solve the air quality problem.
Sandusky: There's a schedule of compliance that's part of that agreement, with specific dates for corrective action. Those dates and that schedule will be tied to stipulated penalties for failure to meet the corrective action dates. So the company will have every reason to try to meet the corrective actions that are laid forth in that agreement.
The president of ValAdCo says he'll bring the company into compliance as quickly as possible. Bill O'Hare says there are several possible solutions, including use of bacteria to reduce hydrogen sulfide levels, or placing a new lid over the manure lagoon. The company has already spent $250,000 on the problem, that cost along with the threat of a substantial fine for violating state air standards is a threat to ValAdCo's financial well being. All of this comes at a time when the price for hogs is less than it costs to produce them. Still O'Hare is confident.
O'Hare: They are a lot of neat things happening with our company. Unfortunately, we've got bad hog prices and a violation from MPCA, but we'll get through it. It'll be good for our company.
Keeping a close eye on ValAdCo will be Julie Jansen and her air analyzer. She's been in this fight three years, and says she's been shunned, called names and nearly run over by people angry with her feedlot campaign. She remembers one incident when she took DFL governor candidate Mark Dayton on a feedlot tour. An angry farmer came up to then and told Dayton what he thought of Jansen.
Jansen: Well, he was calling me a [expletive], constantly. He started yelling and screaming at me and said the only problem Renville County had with their feedlots was me. I was the problem. And that I should go home and take care of my kids and mind my own business.
Jansen says ValAdCo's hydrogen sulfide violation validates what she's been saying for years.
Jansen: I went to town yesterday and I had about 50 people wave to me that have probably looked down at the sidewalk and pretended they didn't see me for three years. It's just nice to be able to say, "I told you so." I'm hoping people look at me more as the honest person I am, instead of the crackpot they thought I was.
Feedlot opponents like Jansen often say the MPCA seems to be more interested in making sure livestock companies stay in business than they are in protecting citizens from pollution. The MPCA's Mike Sandusky says that viewpoint comes from public confusion over what a regulatory agency does. He says the MPCA's job is to correct problems in a way that will survive legal challenges and satisfy the public's desire for action.
Sandusky: Our most desperate wish is to solve these peoples' problems. It's a very confounding issue for us; it causes us a lot of consternation, but we want to do the right thing for everyone.
The MPCA will have many chances to prove that. There are at least 60 air pollution complaints on file against specific feedlots in Minnesota. For each complaint, state law requires an investigation to determine if the air is violating state standards.