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Feedlots Posing Huge Environmental
Threat in Minnesota
By Mary Losure
January 21, 1999
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The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's regulation of factory-scale feedlots has lagged far behind that of other large industries. Despite years of citizen complaints, the agency did not regulate air emissions from manure-storage lagoons until neighbors of a large hog feedlot proved it was violating state health standards. Odor from large feedlots is now a widespread environmental problem. Critics say the PCA has been equally lax in protecting the state's water.

WHEN A GIANT HOG FEEDLOT storing more than 40 million gallons of manure went up a mile from her family's farm in Renville County in southwest Minnesota, the first problem Mary Elbert noticed was the smell. Later, she discovered the water in the drainage ditch that runs under the driveway to her farmhouse was often covered with algae, brown scum, and whitish foam.

Elbert: We drive across the drainage ditch every time we go up to our yard, and our kids used to spend lots of time down there playing. Now I don't let them near it.
Big operations like the one near Elbert are heavily concentrated in Renville County. Elbert worries that manure from their storage lagoons is being applied too heavily to the fields and is running through underground drainage pipes and into ditches and waterways. Sometimes, liquid manure is transported from lagoons to the fields in hoses as much as two miles long, and she's seen leaks in the hoses.
Elbert: We had a case last fall where we had the hoses spraying into the air right by an intake; that's a direct line to our water system.
Elbert had the water in the drainage ditch under her driveway tested by a private lab.

The tests found high levels of fecal coliform bacteria that she feels are coming from the big new hog operations. She and other neighbors have done sporadic sampling of brown, scummy ditch water and found the same kind of bacterial contamination.

The summer before last, 100,000 gallons of manure spilled into Beaver Creek, just a few miles from Elberts house. She and other neighbors followed a trail of dead fish up the creek, taking water samples at each bridge. After 11 miles, they traced the spill to a hog feedlot.
Elbert: Sure we had better things we could be doing, but I'm so tired of them getting by with this, time after time after time. It's like the air quality. I mean, when we have to work in our gardens according to wind direction, when we have to work in our fields according to wind direction, there's something wrong. And nobody's listening to us.
The spill, which the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency confirmed came from a hog lot, killed 600,000 fish.

Richard Serbus, who lives on Beaver Creek, says it looked like a "floating bog" of manure. Serbus' small dairy herd gets its drinking water from the creek. Half his cows aborted their calves. His veterinarian, concerned about Serbus' family's safety, told Serbus to get the well to his house tested. Nitrates in the well, which were at a safe level before the spill, had hit 35 parts per million, more than 3 times the drinking water standard. Serbus thought of suing, but was told he didn't have a case. He can only tally up his losses.
Serbus: We lost half the calves. We had to get them rebred It's six months of production of the cows. We went to filtering our water in the house. Ma and I were both sick; we were sick and we couldn't figure out why and we had belly-aches and diarrhea and my gosh, here we get our water tested and we're drinking 35 nitrate water. I feel that somebody should have been telling us, "Hey, there's a possibility here, do something."
Records from the Department of Natural Resources, which tracks fish kills, show in the years since livestock concentration has increased in Minnesota, the number of confirmed manure spills has been climbing steadily, from one in 1994 to 10 last year. Four of those were in Renville County, where Serbus and Elbert live.

Neighbors of the big feedlots also worry that contaminants from the giant manure lagoons are slowly seeping into the groundwater. They point to the example of North Carolina, the first state where such lagoons were built on a wide scale. In that state, hog lagoons have caused widespread contamination of drinking water wells. North Carolina State Toxicologist Kenneth Rudo says the state began offering free well-testing to neighbors of hog feedlots in 1995, after a series of massive manure spills.
Rudo: In about 3 years we've test about 1600 wells and about 35 percent of them have some contamination from nitrates, and about 10 percent of them have levels of nitrates at or above the drinking water standard of 10 parts-per-million. We've seen several wells that are actually over 100 parts-per-million. And anything over ten poses a direct health risk to humans, especially infants, from risk of methemoglobinemia, which is blue baby syndrome.
Blue baby syndrome is a potentially fatal condition in which nitrates from drinking water disrupt the baby's ability to use oxygen.

Renville County's Elbert and a number of her neighbors - including Julie Jansen - have had their wells tested for nitrates and fecal bacteria. So far, the wells do not show contamination, but Jansen, a well-known local activist who helped prove air emissions from Renville County hog lagoons were violating state health standards, is not reassured.
Jansen: It's very scary. You don't know what's going to happen. You look at the history of North Carolina, they have serious problems there, and everything they have said is not going to happen in Minnesota, is happening in Minnesota.
As problems with large feedlots mount, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has come under increasing criticism for its handling of the issue. In recent years, the PCA has permitted more than 100 industrial-scale, multi-million gallon earthen manure lagoons. Earthen lagoons in Minnesota must be lined with two feet of compacted clay and sometimes a synthetic liner as well. PCA officials say that will prevent the kind of problems seen in other states. Peter Sandberg, compliance coordinator for the southern part of the state, defends the agency.
Sandberg: None of the new facilities are being permitted without getting an engineering review. We do have quite rigorous standards for both earthen-basin construction and for concrete-pit construction that are designed to make sure there won't be any sort of catastrophic failure or an unanticipated leak.
And Sandberg says the PCA simply doesn't have enough staff to inspect and supervise every large facility to make sure manure spills like the one that hit Beaver Creek don't reoccur. He says looking at the big picture, such spills may not be the main problem anyway.
Sandberg : There's a huge potential pollution problem, and it's one that we're real concerned about; but my experience in having visited literally hundreds and hundreds of feedlots over the last 3 years is that the much more serious ongoing problem is the aggregate from the smaller facilities.
Minnesota has thousands of smaller, older manure pits and open lots. The exact number is not known. PCA officials say big feedlots are much more closely monitored than these smaller facilities.

In the past 4 years, the PCA has installed monitoring wells around 19 large feedlots. PCA senior hydrologist Dave Wall says so far, monitoring has shown elevated nitrogen in the groundwater from only one of the 19.
Wall: The research sites where we actually collect what seeps down through the clay liner's containing the manure have found that what gets down through the clay liner looks more like water; more like tapwater. So far, the measured amount of nitrogen moving through the clay liners is generally less than that from a typical septic system, or less than about an acre of corn cropland that's fertilized.
Wall says the PCA is concerned about how well the clay liners will hold up over time, and start more monitoring of older earthen basins next summer.

University of Minnesota Geologist Calvin Alexander says that's not enough.
Alexander: We went through this concept of clay liners stopping contamination with landfills in the 70s and 80s, and the conclusion there is unambiguous, and that is that the clay liners sooner or later fail and that materials get through them.
Last year, the Minnesota Legislature passed a moratorium on earthen manure-storage basins for hogs, but Alexander says that does nothing to prevent long-term problems from the ones that have already been built. In addition, the PCA still permits earthen lagoons for dairy and beef cattle. Many of them are being built in the Karst geology of southeast Minnesota, where cracks and holes in the limestone bedrock lead directly to aquifers.

Last year in Olmsted County in southeast Minnesota, 125,000 thousand gallons of manure leaked through a hole in the limestone bedrock and emerged in a spring feeding the scenic Root River. A farmer in neighboring Fillmore County, who built a 300,000 gallon lagoon over limestone bedrock in 1991, discovered a year later that leaking manure had turned his well into what he describes as a "cesspool". The University of Minnesota's Alexander says the PCA should stop permitting earthen lagoons in areas of the state that are geologically vulnerable.
Alexander: The most dangerous areas in my experience are the most densely Karst areas of southeastern Minnesota. There are sand plains elsewhere in the state that are probably as vulnerable or more vulnerable than the Karst terrain's are and, yes, they have approved the building of many facilities in those kinds of areas.
The question of how to regulate animal agriculture is one of the major issues that will confront the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency under the new administration of Governor Jesse Ventura. Former Governor Arne Carlson was a strong supporter of the expansion of Minnesota's livestock industry, and PCA officials say privately that under the Carlson administration, the agency was under pressure to permit large livestock facilities.

State legislators have ordered an investigation into the PCA's regulation of animal agriculture. The legislative auditor's report is due out later this month.

Mary Losure covers environmental issues for Minnesota Public Radio. You can reach her at