By ANDREA VARGO
"We live in an agricultural area and are used to the smells (of the smaller farms)," said Julie Jansen of Renville County to a meeting of the Environmental Impact Organization in Wright County last summer.
Jansen, one of the people featured in a recent Star and Tribune article on feedlots, said she lives three quarters of a mile from a 23,000,000 gallon lagoon at a 2,500 unit hog farrowing operation, and one and a half miles from a 16,000 unit hog finishing facility with an 18,000,000 gallon lagoon.
There is also a 3,000 unit cattle feedlot to the northwest of her.
"When it was being installed, they told me, 'Julie, you'll never know it is there, except when the tanks are pumped,'" she said.
"These were my friends," she said. "I have one of their children in my daycare."
Jansen's family started getting sick. The kids were vomiting, Jansen was blacking out.
"It was like the worst case of the flu. The cats and dogs vomited and had the diarrhea. My horses were coughing all the time," said Jansen.
She thought it was something she had done. She sanitized the whole house.
They had blisters on their faces and strep throat.
On the fourth of July, 1996, the odor was so bad, everyone in the house was sick, including two daycare children.
The kids were crying in their sleep, they were in so much pain.
"We called the poison control center and the county commissioner," she said.
A friend of Jansen's told her the lagoons give off methane gas or hydrogen sulfide.
Jansen said, "I asked the man at the poison control center if either of these gases could cause us to be sick. He said, 'Yes.'"
When Jansen described the symptoms, he said, "The only symptoms you are not experiencing are seizures, convulsions, and death."
He advised them to leave the area immediately.
"We packed up 10 kids and went to Willmar, about 45 minutes away. When we got there, no one was sick. We were breathing clean air," she said.
Now the symptoms come quicker and leave more slowly. They have been told people become more sensitive to the gas (hydrogen sulfide).
Jansen said, "Neither the health department, nor the the MPCA would take us seriously.
"We could have been in a life-threatening situation, and no one would have cared."
Jansen started calling neighbors. Out of 72 families, 20 families had health effects and 49 had odor problems.
They didn't want to commit to anything (complaints) then, she said.
There are 17 large feedlots in Renville County, and Jansen put ads in papers to advertise a phone survey.
She said she talked to hundreds of people in 12 states. Her phone bill was running $1,000 per month.
Jansen couldn't believe no one had done anything about this problem, yet.
"I was scared, and I didn't know what to do next," she said.
Every piece of information she collected was turned over to the county commissioners. Nothing was enough, she said.
Jansen kept journals documenting health effects, and what was happening.
She needed to raise $15,000 to start a lawsuit, but couldn't.
The MPCA was playing games with her, she said. If she wanted something done, she had to do it herself.
The agency gave her testing tags. She put them up around the facility in question, and recorded 50 parts per billion (ppb) hydrogen sulfide.
Although that number breaks the law, the MPCA said the tags were inconclusive. They told her she needed better equipment for testing, but the agency wouldn't do it.
"So we had to rent an analyzer. The MPCA said it was the best that could be used," she said.
Jansen got readings of 280 parts per billion of hydrogen sulfide. MPCA finally came out to do some tests, but said they were just field tests and inconclusive.
"Without testing, we proved that 25 percent of lagoons in our area were in violation of the law by three times the legal limit of hydrogen sulfide.
"We had a camera and witnesses and recorded 1,400 ppb in my yard," she said.
The health department says a person can get sick from 10 ppb, she said. Even this level can cause headaches and frequent nausea. Department personnel call these nuisance symptoms.
"If you believe this is an important issue," said Jansen, "write your legislators and commissioners."
They need to recognize this is a community-wide concern and effort, she said.