The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) announced this week that it will take action to force the closure of a large, 1,500+ cow dairy near Thief River Falls.
Excel Dairy has exceeded hydrogen sulfide emission limits nearly 700 times in the past two years, say MPCA officials. In 2008, the Minnesota Department of Public Health declared the dairy a public health hazard.
The dairy's current permit expires April 28, and it's likely the MPCA will vote not to renew the permit at its board meeting March 23.
Excel Dairy had its environmental permit revoked in April 2009, but had it immediately reissued on condition that it empty its three manure lagoons, install covers and remove feed from the site. The dairy has blown straw over the first lagoon, but has failed to cover the other two. Nor has it removed hundreds of tons of stored feed.
Nearby residents and state officials presented nearly three hours of testimony to the Minnesota Senate Health, Housing and Family Security Committee in St. Paul Thursday.
Though invited to present their side, owners of Excel Dairy did not appear at the hearing. When contacted by Dairy Today, Excel Dairy owner Rick Millner acknowledges that mistakes have been made at the dairy. But he says his group has made a good-faith effort to contain odors at the dairy over the past two years. Of the 700 odor violations, only three occurred outside the 21-day exemption period allowed by Minnesota regulations.
Millner says every time his ownership group has had the case heard by a neutral, third-party judge, Excel has won. "All of these rulings by MPCA will be rendered moot, and will be overturned by the Court of Appeals March 4 when the court reviews the case,” he predicts.
"The dairy was given a one-year permit with clear deadlines to clean up, though they did remove the cattle in February 2009 in what they say was an act of good faith,” says Jeff Grell, Minnesota Assistant Attorney General. "Even though there were no cattle there last spring, the 30 ppb [parts per billion] hydrogen sulfide standard was exceeded 152 times and the 50 ppb standard was exceeded 51 times.”
The Attorney General and MPCA opted to revoke and then reissue Excel's permit last year because the agencies felt they could get faster compliance. If the agencies had simply revoked the permit, says Paul Eger, MPCA Commissioner, the dairy could continue to operate during the appeal process.
Complicating the matter is the fact that the dairy is also involved in a lawsuit with Marshall County, Minn. That suit has dragged on for some two years as well. Criminal charges against owners of the dairy were dismissed last June.
Several residents who live within a mile of the dairy also testified at yesterday's hearing. They say they are driven inside some days when wind blows in their direction, and in some cases, they have been forced from their homes when the odors permeated inside.
"The stress and fatigue caused by these odors have made me into a different person,” says Jeff Brouse. "I feel like I'm drowning and have no control over our lives.”
At times, Brouse, his wife, and their three small children were forced to stay with their in-laws, sleeping in the basement on the concrete floor of their small home.
Senate Committee members repeatedly asked Health Department and MPCA officials why action to close the dairy hadn't been taken sooner. They responded that Minnesota state law affords them no such authority. Assistant Attorney General Grell also notes that like all accused parties, Excel Dairy has a legal right to due process.
Officials of both the Department of Public Health and MPCA testified they are willing to work with the Legislature to expand their agencies' authorities to act more quickly in the future.
Jim Dickrell is editor of Dairy Today.