Howard Lake-Waverly Herald, April 9, 2001

Angry residents say manure clean up is late, slow

By Lynda Jensen

More than 120 area township residents peppered state officials with questions about a lagoon spill during an informational meeting hosted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency last Monday.

The meeting addressed a recent incident where two earthen lagoons at Metro Dairy spilled into a storm water pond three miles south of Waverly and discharged thousands of gallons of liquid manure into a county ditch in Woodland Township.

The dairy cow operation has 1,150 animals.

Tense questions, few answers forthcoming

The tense, standing-room-only meeting was attended by four MPCA officials, a third party moderator from the Twin Cities, Metro Dairy owner Virgil Scherping, and two representatives from an environmental legal consulting firm who spoke on behalf of the dairy farm.

Metro Dairy, in its clean up efforts, has removed 380,000 gallons of the spilled mixture out of County Ditch #31, which runs just past the lagoons and then winds its way across half the township in the form of a small creek (see map).

The creek eventually empties into the Crow River, although the spill didn't reach the river and no fish kills have been reported, said MPCA Area Manager Myrna Halbach.

Initially, Metro Dairy attempted to contain the spill on its own property, but did not notify any authorities of the problem until four days after the event, Halbach said, when the spill got out of control and spread down the adjacent creek.

Feedlot operators are required to notify officials regardless of whether a spill is on its own property or not, Halbach said.

Although the investigation will take time, the MPCA wanted to have the meeting so that residents would not wonder what was happening, Halbach said.

Unfortunately, few answers were forthcoming since the incident was under investigation by the MPCA - with the MPCA refusing to even speculate the number of gallons spilled, condition of the clean up, or cause of the accident - and residents criticizing the MPCA for relying on Metro Dairy to collect a portion of its spill information, without checking it for accuracy.

In addition, a data collection report, which is required by law to be available to the public, was not available at the meeting because of a printer problem, Halbach said.

Scherping apologized to the crowd, saying that Metro Dairy will study the situation, so that it will not occur again in the future.

Residents bitterly compared notes with the information given at the meeting, correcting MPCA officials on everything from the material used to construct berms placed in the county ditch, to the dates and times neighbors observed the dairy company doing clean-up operations.

Angry residents wondered why the MPCA didn't act sooner and with more concern for the residents rather than Metro Dairy.

"If I didn't do my job better than that, I'd get fired," resident Mike Dempsey said.

Residents appeared to be very organized, backing their claims with documentation in the form of photographs and eyewitness accounts that were displayed on a giant poster on the wall.

Halbach agreed to register the residents' information, saying that it was welcome.

"We're talking about our homes," resident Joan Miller said. "He (Scherping) doesn't live on his farm. He doesn't have to drink that water," she added.

"Are we supposed to sit and listen to Metro Dairy say we'll fix everything? I don't think so," Miller said as the crowd applauded her words. "There's too many cows there. They had better get one whopping big fine," she said.

Other residents worried about the safety of their water from wells in proximity to the spill, and who should pay for digging them down to the next aquifer level, as well as for testing them.

"Can we legally sue that man over there for contaminating our water?" one resident asked angrily, pointing at Scherping.

Another resident questioned the MPCA about when the first berm was put in place - and upon hearing the answer as March 21 - said, "You're lying. I was there when the sh-t was going past my house. How can you say that, and lie to these people?"

"What good is this whole meeting?" resident Peter Neururer asked. "Who am I to rely on? You guys (MPCA) are all I got," he said.

How it happened

The spill was not initially reported to the state by Metro Dairy, although the dairy operation is required to give notice 24-hours from the accident according to its permit, Halbach said.

Frozen pipes and a faulty standpipe gauge were responsible for contributing to the accident, Scherping said.

A pipe froze between the two lagoons, which was bypassed by a portable pump March 15. "We believed there was more than adequate capacity in lagoon two to receive manure from lagoon one," Scherping said.

This lagoon began to overflow because of pressure from the ice and snow atop it, which was pushing liquid over the side even though the measuring device indicated that the volume was well below its capacity, Scherping said.

The pumping was stopped as soon as the overflow was discovered that day, he said.

When the spill occurred, Metro Dairy attempted to contain it on a sediment pond within its own property, according to a statement released by Scherping after the meeting.

Metro Dairy did not have the equipment to complete the work that Friday, and contacted an excavator to help, Scherping said.

"The excavator said he could come Monday (March 19)," Scherping said in his statement. This was satisfactory, since the tile beneath the basin was frozen, he said.

Neighbors reported the spill and township officer Jim Trombley attempted to contact the MPCA that Sunday, but got a recording, he said.

Messages were left unanswered, since it was the weekend. A hotline number for the MPCA required him to use a PIN number, Trombley said.

Residents also complained that the MPCA couldn't be reached on weekends, even though the spill did most of its damage during this time, when the frozen ground started to thaw and allowed the spill to progress.

If the spill was controlled promptly, and stopped with berms made of the proper material, no surrounding farmland would have been contaminated, residents said.

Residents also expressed anger at being the last to know about anything - with Metro Dairy given preference to information.

"Why call him first?" one resident asked. "He lives in another county. We're the ones who have to deal with it," she said.

This is the usual procedure, MPCA Feedlot Officer Jim Verros said.

Residents angrily demanded to know what the advantage was for a feedlot to notify anyone of a spill in the first place.

"What is the consequence for not reporting?" a resident asked.

Halbach said that this was part of an enforcement issue.

Ice blocking the tile thawed Monday afternoon (March 19), allowing manure to spill into County Ditch 31, Scherping said. Residents disagreed with this, saying they sighted manure in County Ditch 31 Friday.

From that day on, Metro Dairy erected five berms to stop the flow of manure, and made inspections of the spill site over the next series of days, Scherping said.

During the meeting, Greg Fontaine, an environmental lawyer, claimed that the berms were made of clay, but residents flatly denied this, saying that the berms were made of plain dirt. One resident at the meeting informed the room that Metro Dairy bought dirt and grass from his property for the berms.

"I'm not a rocket scientist, but where I'm from, we don't control water with mud," resident Clem Otto said. "We use sandbags."

Several hundred thousand gallons of manure were pumped from the ditch, but the three fields used for the spreading were frozen and in close proximity to the creek, residents said.

This means the manure will get into the stream anyway, residents said.

Halbach indicated that there is no standard for berms and that they can be made of anything available at the time, she said.

Residents expressed frustration that the MPCA appeared to have no policies or procedures for berms.

Neighbors pointed to the fact that Metro Dairy had to keep making berms to make up for the failure of previous ones.

The first berm created on the west side of Dempsey Avenue was breached the day after it was made, said resident John McIntosh.

Now that the spring thaw is starting up, residents grilled MPCA officials about how they were going to contain the spill, since it took so long to start the clean-up process.

The spill has been contained, up to Metro Dairy's property line, Scherping said in a statement after the meeting.

Residents claim that manure is still seeping and polluting County Ditch 31.

The history behind it

Many of the residents who attended the meeting protested the expansion of Metro Dairy in 1998, from about 700 to its current 1,150 animals. Fontaine was also present during the county meetings, to persuade the county in favor of the expansion.

At that time, the township voted for a five-year waiting period on any condition use permits, with two township officers voting in favor of this, Jim Trombley and Bill Pollock, and one against, Ken Pawelk, according to Woodland Township Clerk Gloria Janikula.

The official minutes of the Wright County Planning Commission for the meeting of June 25, 1998, stated that the"town board recommends denial and. . . a waiting period of five years" in relation to Scherping's expansion.

Several complaints by residents about smell and high hydrogen sulfide levels past the road were discussed at two county planning and zoning meetings that summer.

In retrospect, Chuck Davis of the current planning and zoning office said that they can't object to a facility without substantial reasons. It was noted at the time that the area is zoned agricultural and was within its purpose.

"This location was as close to 'farm country' as you can get, and if you cannot build a dairy barn here, where can you have it?" wrote Planning and Zoning Administrator Tom Salkowski in 1998.

Several residents and representatives testifying about the expansion at the county planning and zoning meeting June 25, 1998, and another meeting Aug. 20, 1998.

The county approved a total of 1,270 animals at that time, with one zoning officer dissenting the vote.

In the county minutes, planning and zoning ordered Scherping to plant trees and place straw on the lagoons to address the smell issue at the time, of which neighbors complained of.

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