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"Cumulative Impact" Plays Role in Feedlot Regulation
By Gretchen Lehmann
November 4, 1998
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For the last two weeks, feedlots have been the topic of conversation in many Minnesota communities. A series of public-comment meetings are generating material for a comprehensive study on animal agriculture. One issue guaranteed to get attention is odor from animal feedlots. However, the focus of the discussion is shifting. A recent court case in Pope County has drawn attention to the "cumulative impact" of feedlot odors, one issue which may be the next big hurdle in the state's approach to feedlot regulation.

100 YEARS AGO THE AVERAGE HOG AND DAIRY FARM was a small operation that could be worked by a family - some land and a few animals. Today's livestock operations are bigger, with hundreds more animals, more waste, and more odor. They're often located closer together on smaller parcels of land. Regulators now have to pay attention to livestock operations as a group and their impact on an area.

Laws regulating the so-called "cumulative impacts" have been on the books for years, but Environmental Quality Board Coordinator Greg Downing says no one's sure how to apply them.

Downing: It's pretty clear that you're supposed to take them into account in some way, but exactly how you're supposed to do that is not very well spelled-out in rules, or really in anybody's rules, as far as I know.
Downing is coordinating an EQB study on how to assess "cumulative impacts." He says the problem is one of definition. How far from a feedlot site do you go to test "cumulative impacts" - one mile or ten? And what's the standard equipment to test hydrogen sulfide and other odor levels?

Traditionally the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has considered each site separately where the issue of odor is concerned. But many citizens groups say this approach doesn't take into account the impact from all the sites at a feedlot operation. This issue was central in a recent court case involving the group Pope County Mothers and Others Concerned for Health.

The group argued that before MPCA officials issued permits to Hancock Pro Pork, a company with 13 feedlot sites, the state should have considered the cumulative impact of the whole operation. The group's attorney, Jim Peters, explains why.

Peters: Let's imagine one township in Minnesota has maybe a six-mile diameter, and they have 1,000 ten-acre feedlots in it. It's going to have an enormous cumulative impact on the environment of that area, even though one 250 animal feedlot on its own, in an isolated area, is not going to have a significant effect on the neighbors. If you put a thousand of 'em right next to each other, you're going to have a cumulative effect.
The judge in the case sided with Peters, and cited the MPCA for failing to consider odor from all of the Hancock Pro Pork sites before approving the operation.

Density was also key in the Pope County case. Several feedlots were already operating in the same west-central Minnesota township where Hancock Pro Pork planned to build some of its barns. Attorney Michael Fluegel, who represents Hancock, says he agrees "cumulative impacts" should be considered, but he says his client's hi-tech operation should not be the one to suffer the consequences.

Fluegel:The accumulation of emissions is not caused necessarily by these projects, but by a concentration of feedlots - pre-existing feedlots - in the same geographic area.
Many in the industry see the Hancock case as a precedent - one that will determine how the MPCA will assess feedlot applications in the future. One of those people is Greg Downing with the Environmental Quality Board.
Downing: Certainly the Hancock Pro Pork case is raising the issue. Whether or not it will directly result in any changes, I'm not sure. If nothing else, it's certainly highlighting the issue and probably forcing everyone to deal with it at this time.
The MPCA is working on a new computer program that can simulate the cumulative effect of several sites. One of the first tests was conducted in Pope County and it showed odor and hydrogen sulfide levels exceeding the state limit. This information was used as evidence in the court case. An MPCA spokesperson says the test results shouldn't have been considered, because the testing methods are still at a preliminary stage and need more refinement.

The EQB's Greg Downing agrees study on "cumulative impacts" is still in its infancy, but he's got a good idea what's coming down the road.

Downing: Since preliminary studies are showing that feedlots can contribute to cumulative impacts, at least on air quality at considerable distances apart, maybe several miles apart, it may very well be there's going to need to be some air-quality modeling done as routine for the review of feedlot applications in the future.
Downing says the Environmental Impact Statement at the core of the state's effort to regulate this growing industry will need to address the cumulative impact of multiple feedlots. Citizens at public meetings around the state are asking for that, and so are top officials at a variety of state agencies.