By ANDREA VARGO
The Environmental Impact Organization (EIO) a volunteer group based in Wright County, will go back to court this spring with an appeal that impacts large feedlots.
The EIO, led by lawyer John McIntosh of Waverly, is seeking to compel the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Virgil Scherping's facility, Metro Dairy south of Waverly on Co. Rd. 30.
In response to statements made by McIntosh, Scherping said. "The EIO continues to spend the taxpayer's money to challenge a permit approved by the MPCA.
Scherping said the permit was contested by the EIO and approved again by the MPCA.
He said the EIO appealed again, and the District Court again approved the permit.
"The appeal by the EIO to the State of Minnesota Court of Appeals seems frivolous," said Scherping.
"This is a great cost to taxpayers and to Metro Dairy to revisit a permit that was legal to begin with," he said.
Sherping said the cost to the EIO is minimal, because neither the State of Minnesota nor Metro Dairy has recourse against a public interest group (EIO) to recover legal costs, if the state wins the case.
"Scherping's Metro Dairy has been identified as one of the top 10 problem facilities in the state, based on odor complaints," said McIntosh.
But Scherping told the Herald that Metro Dairy is currently involved, voluntarily, with the MPCA's hydrogen sulfide program.
He said the program was set up to test hydrogen sulfide levels by MPCA staff, trained specifically to operate the monitoring equipment.
Scherping said the tests are used to determine if a facility exceeds the safety standard. Metro Dairy had four complaints in 1997, said Scherping, and in all cases, the offending odors were from other livestock facilities where manure application or hauling was taking place.
Said Scherping, "Metro Dairy is well below any of the air pollution standards set by the MPCA."
But McIntosh states, there is a history of non-compliance by Scherping facilities in other locations, which is why the EIO is so concerned about this Wright County feedlot.
The facility has a waste storage lagoon that is 186 feet from a county ditch, when the original regulations stated the minimum should be 1,000 feet, McIntosh said.
According to McIntosh, the MPCA amended the regulations to 500 feet, but the feedlot is still not in compliance.
Scherping replied, "This is a misstatement of fact. Metro Dairy is in compliance in all other counties."
Regarding other issues, McIntosh said, "We've been told Metro Dairy has exceeded it's permit limitations in the number of animals it is milking."
Scherping told the Herald that Metro Dairy is running in compliance of all the state and county permits it has been given. He said the facility is milking 500 cows.
"We have urged everyone around the feedlot to get a physical and have their wells tested to have a baseline for any future problems," McIntosh said.
"EIO rented an analyzer to test the emissions from the area around the Scherping feedlot last year," said McIntosh.
"We expected to get 0s and were surprised that we already got levels in the area that cause health problems," McIntosh said.
The MPCA should have done this, but they won't, McIntosh said.
But Scherping differed with McIntosh again.
"There is a protocol that the MPCA uses to operate and calibrate the monitoring equipment for the hydrogen sulfide program. Metro Dairy is a part of this program and is working very closely with the state," said Scherping.
He said Metro Dairy has been monitored four times by MPCA staff, and the results never exceeded EPA air standards.
EIO in appeals court
As far as the lawsuit is concerned, the EIO is in appeals court now. A non-oral conference is set with a panel of three judges that will review the case April 23 and render a decision.
The focus of the appeal is on three things: health, odor, and a sanitized record submitted by MPCA.
The health problems stem from hydrogen sulfide emissions, and this was absolutely not dealt with by MPCA, said McIntosh.
"What we believed to be a likely scenario (with the feedlots) is now coming true, unfortunately," said McIntosh.
McIntosh said that odor is also a large problem. It is a nuisance and is caused by the same gas emissions, he said, and this was also not dealt with sufficiently by MPCA.
The third reason for the appeal is one McIntosh believes should be enough reason by itself to sway the judges.
According to McIntosh, the MPCA sanitized records by not including adverse information from studies about feedlots.
He said MPCA only included information that said, "they (manure lagoons) work."
McIntosh said there have been some major developments. Another large dairy is proposed for Nicollet County, and the MPCA has recommended an EIS, based on toxic emissions.
Wright County has had a moratorium in place for feedlots since November, 1996, said Wright County Assistant Attorney Brian Asleson.
The status for Wright County keeps the moratorium in place, while the board reviews the proposed ordinance, which doesn't deal with what regulations should be enacted for the huge facilities, McIntosh said.
Asleson estimated the county board will deal with the feedlot issue within the next 60 days.
"The house version of the feedlot bill is in conference committee in order to reach a compromise between the House and the Senate," he said.
If the two legislative bodies don't agree on a bill, the issue will die in committee, said Asleson.
Education the key
"As we (EIO) got into this whole thing, we spent an enormous amount of time researching the issue," McIntosh said.
The EIO found out this same issue was going on all over the state.
People didn't know anything about the feedlots. Were they good or bad?
"But our government has knowingly allowed people to get sick that live in the midst of these facilities," McIntosh said.
Disagreeing again, Scherping said, "Metro Dairy has 12 employees, including the owner and his family, that spend most of their lives around the facility."
Metro Dairy has never had an illness because of the odor," he said.
Investors not farmers
"Operations are investment driven, not run by people who drive manure spreaders," said McIntosh.
"But," Scherping said, "if a farmer is not a smart investor today, the investor/farmer will not be farming long."
A feedlot like Scherping's will be equivalent to a city of 10,000 people, with no waste treatment facility, when it is finished, said McIntosh.
"A city couldn't get away with that. There is no enforcement on waste treatment, and it is not cost effective for the facility to do it," he said.
Scherping said, "Dairy cows have been in the rural community for a very long time.
"The number of dairy cows in Minnesota has declined rapidly in the past 20 years from 1.4 million to about 500,000 today," he said.
"The rural community twenty years ago, had to deal with over twice as many dairy cows as are around today," said Scherping.
No easy solution
McIntosh said, "We don't believe they (the feedlots) should necessarily move out of the state, but they should be held accountable.
"Until we get enough people educated, it won't get dealt with," said McIntosh."
The United States is 20 years behind Europe in treatment and enforcement on waste treatment, he said
MPCA is run by agri-business, said McIntosh.
"The EIO had to force the MPCA to do their job by writing a law to enforce the law," he said.
Agency has problems
The MPCA confirms over 500 feedlots are operating with expired permits, while many others are not even applying for them, reported the Star Tribune, March 8.
The MPCA has the power to demand an EIS but has never done this, and doesn't even follow federal guidelines for permitting, said the report.
These guidelines would require the state to give 30 days public notice for public comment, but there are only 25 federal permits for feedlots in the state.
The state gets around this by issuing temporary permits at the rate of over 100 per year, according to its records.
Conflict of interest
In addition, there are possible conflicts of interest by MPCA board members, according to a report in the Star Tribune's report.
The MPCA is made up of nine members, and three of them are, or have been, feedlot investors.
For example, Elaine Neitzel is a board member, and she and her husband, Charlie, are involved in four feedlots in Redwood and Yellow Medicine counties.
When her own feedlot came under investigation by the MPCA and Department of Natural Resources because of a fish kill in Spring Creek, she called MPCA supervisors to complain about that investigation.
Propaganda and power
Big agri-businesses are politically sophisticated and are trying to get the state to take away the county rights to regulate this type of business, said McIntosh.
Some of the propaganda tossed about (by the proponents of large feedlots) is being debunked, said McIntosh.
But, according to the stories in the Star Tribune last week, big agriculture still has the green light, he said.
County officials need to understand the situations and be willing to make decisions that benefit the people, not just a huge business, said McIntosh.
"True leadership is based on educating yourself on facts and voting on what you really believe. You need to be willing to take some heat (for those decisions)," McIntosh said.
"Voters hold people accountable for their actions
in this county," he said.