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Counties Taking on Feedlot Regulation
By Gretchen Lehmann
May 13, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

One in a series of reports about Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issues

Livestock operators on small farms want to expand to keep their businesses afloat, but their neighbors don't want more odor or more pollution problems. Officials in Morrison County in central Minnesota believe counties should handle feedlots, not the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).

Myron Czech: What we have here is a quarter of an acre paddock of pasture....
MYRON CZECH is a second-generation farmer in Morrison County. He owns 500 acres just north of Little Falls where he raises more than 200 cows and operates his own dairy. Like many farmers in Morrison County, he is looking to expand his operation; he recently bought a farmstead where he will raise an additional 200 dairy cows. When it came time to get a permit for a new barn, he found he had to meet much tougher requirements than in the past.
Czech: What the review process determined was we should abandon this one small paddock and let it grow back totally into vegetation so that it provides a buffer zone between the farmstead and the wetland; the manure pit is also close to the wetland, and so they recommended we do some soil borings.
In January Morrison County in central Minnesota enacted a 10-step environmental review process. The goal: to ensure environmentally-sound livestock operations. For more than 16 years, Morrison has been what's called a "feedlot county;" through an agreement with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, they have the power to issue feedlot permits for operations with up to 750 cows and 2,500 hogs.

Morrison County Soil and Water Conservation District Manager Helen McLennan helped create the new environmental review process. She says it's designed to be comprehensive. By the time feedlot operators meet all the requirements of the review and their permit is before the planning commission, there should be no questions or concerns about issuing the permit. And McLennan says there should be no politics, either.

McLennan: In the hearing process, neighbors - out of no real scientific reason - might raise some questions, and the planning commission wouldn't know if there's any substance to their comments or not; and so the environmental review process was supposed to be a non-biased approach to answer some of those questions.
The review process requires that farmers and livestock operators create a manure management and a runoff plan. Often they are told to build buffers or abandon old facilities. In some cases Soil and Water District staff have required some redesigning to avoid and protect sensitive environmental areas. It's a process some farmers say can be too time-consuming, but Myron Czech says the farmers all recognize it's inherent to the business.
Czech: You look at it as a necessary step that you have to take if you do that - sure it might seem like a nuisance at times, and we might have better things to do like plant corn than do some of these things this month - but all-in-all the long-range plan - it's something we know we have to do.
There's another requirement in Morrison County. Farmers are meeting face-to-face with their neighbors to keep the peace. The makeup of the community is changing. Homes are popping up in areas that were farm fields, and the new homeowners are starting to complain about odors and pollution. County officials are hoping their "Good Neighbor Plan" will ease some of these tensions. The plan is part of the environmental review process, and it requires that feedlot operators talk to all neighbors within a mile of their property to let them in on plans for the land.
Czech: As far as the actual agreement with the neighbors, it's goodwill; it's your word that you're going to do it, and you're going over there to tell them what you're going to do.
Myron Czech's neighbors say they were pleasantly surprised when he stopped by to talk with them. One couple said they were shocked when he offered to put off spreading manure on his property whenever they had a party or special occasion at their home.

MPCA officials say they are very impressed with the Good Neighbor Plan and Morrison County's entire review process. Feedlot program engineer Kim Brynildson says it's one of many examples of Minnesota county officials taking control of their community's environmental well-being.

Brynildson: I think it's great. I really like it when counties are making sure they are covering all the bases and doing a good job with the review process.
Ironically, more than 40 Minnesota counties are now designated "feedlot counties" because local officials felt the MPCA wasn't doing a good enough job. Morrison County Soil and Water District Manager Helen McLennan says she has battled the MPCA for more than 10 years. The agency still handles permitting for larger feedlot operations, and they're responsible for enforcing violations. McLennan says on one occasion an MPCA official told her she had to expect a one-year wait for permitting or for follow-ups on pollution violations.
McLennan: Statutorily I am given 10 days to respond to a wetland application, and I have 30 days if it's a violation; I think a year is out of line. I don't think it is at all necessary to drag anyone out to that time frame. Take one to conclusion and take the next file off your desk. I can't believe they couldn't do a better job.
Brynildson: Basically it comes back to staff and time.
The MPCA's Kim Brynildson.
Brynildson: We can't be everywhere simultaneously, and there's still only 24 hours in our day.
Helen McLennan doesn't buy that argument. She says her staff of four has managed to complete 27 environmental reviews since the first of the year, and that's over and above the more than 50 other programs they administer in Morrison County. McLennan admits MPCA operates on a much larger scale - they're responsible for the entire state. And permits for larger operations are bound to take more time because there are more rules and standards involved. McLennan still believes, however, counties could do a better job, even on large-scale permits and violations. Feedlot operator Myron Czech agrees.
Czech: They approach it from the standpoint of let's get the problem solved. I think sometimes people who might come from St. Paul, oh, they might want to exercise their clout or show you how much power they have, and I think they use intimidation more than they should.
While MPCA may give local communities the impression of being "big brother," engineer Kim Brynildson says there is an equal danger with local officials issuing permits for and violations against their friends, family, or neighbors. Brynildson says she doesn't foresee the day counties will take complete control of permitting and enforcement, but that hasn't stopped some from trying. Blue Earth County officials have stepped up efforts to respond to local feedlot pollution problems and say they can now act more quickly than the MPCA. Morrison County has also dabbled with violation enforcement. Last year a Department of Natural Resources officer cited a local feedlot operator for a violation when he dumped manure into a nearby wetland. The site was cleaned up within a week. Farmer Myron Czech says the swift action of the county has made farmers keenly aware that someone is watching.
Czech: There are some examples here of some pretty heavy fines and some very strict enforcement, so they sure have fear into me, I'll tell you that.
Myron Czech just received his permit for a new cow barn. He plans to begin construction later this year.