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Farm exceeds state hydrogen sulfide standard
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Part of the Watonwan Feeder Pig Cooperative near the town of Lewisville. (MPR Photo/Mark Steil)
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is investigating a hog company in the southern part of the state for violating Minnesota air standards. Testing last summer showed manure lagoons at the Watonwan Feeder Pig Cooperative produced excessive levels of hydrogen sulfide. A couple living near the hog farm doubts the latest state action will do much good. They say the company and its thousands of pigs have hurt them for more than 25 years and no one has done anything to fix it.

Lewisville, Minn. — The start of spring in southern Minnesota is a good thing for most people. It brings the earthy smells of new life and the promise of time outdoors. Marvella Reckard lives near Lewisville. She says spring is not a good time for her.

"Definitely not. No, it's not happy. It's stinky," she says.

A nearby hog farm ruins the spring renaissance. The warm air which nearly everyone welcomes is an alarm bell for Marvella and her husband Earl. It signals that their shield against hog odor is disappearing. The warm temperatures hasten the decay of hog manure stored in large basins at the farm, increasing odor. When the wind is right, the manure gases blow across the Reckard farm with sickening intensity.

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Image Marvella Reckard

"Oh, I can't breathe," she says. "It feels just like somebody has their hands around your throat. It gives you a funny feeling when you can't get your breath."

The Reckard's both suffer from allergies, something they blame on gases from the hog lagoons. Both of the lagoons are the size of a football field. They hold thousands of gallons of watery manure. The managers of the hog company did not return our calls for comment. On this day the air is fine at the Reckard's. But it can change quickly. Take a drive in a car and it's clear the manure gases are being pushed just to the north of the Reckard farm.

Earl and Marvella Reckard have complained about the hog operation since it was built some 27 years ago. Earl was one of the first in the state to link manure gases and health problems. He testified at a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency hearing 25 years ago. He said the hog odors were horrible and asked the MPCA to analyze the fumes. He says nothing happened then. More than 20 years later he was validated when the Minnesota Department of Health confirmed that manure gases were a public health concern. Earl says the state has banned construction of new hog manure lagoons. He applauds that action but says it was a mistake to allow existing lagoons, like those at Watonwan Feeder Pig, to continue in operation.

"They say it's grandfathered in and they can't do nothing about it," he says. "But I think they could if they wanted to. I think that this lagoon system should have been out years ago."

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Image Earl Reckard

Both Reckard's are in their early 80's now. They've heard so many broken promises through the years they've almost given up hope.

In 1978 the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency reminded the hog farm of its "obligation to control nuisance odors".

In 1980 the MPCA wrote the Reckard's "the Agency has not forgotten or ignored the complaints" about the hog farm.

In 1997 an MPCA official said "Watonwan County Feeder Pig Coop will be required..... to reduce air emissions".

The Reckard's say all the talking has not improved air quality. So it's not surprising that the couple is a little cynical when they hear the most recent statement from the agency. MPCA feedlot program manager Myrna Halbach says rural residents like the Reckard's will have their concerns addressed.

"We just don't tell them that you have to live with it," says Halbach. "We actually work with the producer to find a solution that fixes this problem."

Marvella Reckard says she's heard that sort of talk before.

"I'm sure glad to hear that but I wished it worked that way," she says. "If they can't find a solution in over 20 years either there isn't one or they're not trying too hard."

The Reckard's are sometimes asked, 'why don't you move?' They say they couldn't sell their house if they wanted to because of the bad air. Plus Earl says it's a point of pride.

"We bought this in 1954 and we've been here a lot longer than they have," he says. "We don't feel like letting them chase us out."

MPCA tests last summer showed Watonwan Feeder Pig violated the state's hydrogen sulfide standard on numerous occasions. These sorts of results were predicted long ago by at least one Minnesota Pollution Control Agency official, though he was ignored. In 1978 Lawrence Landherr called the Watonwan manure lagoons a classic example of bad planning. He wrote the MPCA's solid waste director that the lagoons were a Frankenstein monster that should have been killed in the planning stage. Today Landherr is still with MPCA, and he still thinks the lagoons were a bad idea.

"Basically it was a kind of an understanding that this type of manure storage system, putting hog waste in water in a large open basin like that, just to me was something that was going to maximize odor production," says Landherr.

The Minnesota Department of Health has criticized the MPCA's handling of the issue. In a memo last December health officials said the agency was not doing enough to "adequately evaluate" potential exposure to hydrogen sulfide. Watonwan Feeder Pig is not the only problem manure site in the state. Pristine Pork in northwest Minnesota, Diamond K dairy in the southeast and Triple J Livestock on the Iowa border also have exceeded the state's hydrogen sulfide standard. The MPCA's Myrna Halbach says separate action will be taken against each.

"There are exceedances and there are actual violations at each of the sites in question," says Halbach. "And each of the sites in question are actually in some level of enforcement going on".

So far the MPCA has not announced what those enforcement actions will be. There could be fines, changes in operation or both. The big question is, will air quality improve? The state's best known case of manure pollution occurred in Renville County in the last decade. ValAdco tried everything from lagoon covers to chemicals to reduce the gases, but nothing worked. Eventually the company was sold and the new owner drained the lagoons. There's no sign of that sort of change at Watonwan Feeder Pig. Marvella Reckard says until some sort of solution is found, she's at the mercy of the wind.

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