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Minnesota Lawmakers Support Alternatives
to Factory Farms

by Brian DeVore
St. Paul, Minnesota

Brian DeVore writes for the Land Stewardship Project.

The Minnesota Legislature is no stranger to livestock concentration issues. But the recently concluded 1997 session marks the first time legislation to hold factory farms accountable to their neighbors was passed alongside initiatives promoting alternative production systems that eliminate the environmental problems created by factory facilities in the first place.

Hydrogen Sulfide Enforcement

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is now required by law to develop a protocol for enforcing air quality standards related to hydrogen sulfide emissions. This legislation provides $163,000 the first year and $92,000 the second year for air quality monitoring and compliance activities around manure lagoons.

The law requires the MPCA to use portable survey instruments, a strategy likely to make the agency better able to respond to citizen complaints from a wide geographic area. Permanent monitoring stations provide accurate readings at a few specific sites, but leave little room for responding to complaints from different parts of the state. MPCA officials must report back to the House and Senate in 1998 on their efforts to resolve the hydrogen sulfide problem.

This legislation is the result of intense lobbying on the part of Land Stewardship Project (LSP) members and other rural residents who have experienced symptoms of hydrogen sulfide poisoning within the past few years. Last year, LSP and a group of citizens used state-of-the art monitoring equipment to test air quality in the vicinity of several lagoons in Renville County. They found many of the lagoons were in violation of state hydrogen sulfide standards. They also found there was no protocol in place to take action on facilities producing illegal amounts of the toxic gas.

"I don't want this to happen to anyone else," says Julie Jansen, whose rural Olivia home is within a mile of two large manure lagoons. She and her family have experienced blackout periods, nausea, vomiting and other symptoms of hydrogen sulfide poisoning during the past few years. "I'm really excited about the legislation. Now we just need to see if the MPCA will do its job."

That's easier said than done. Mike Sandusky, acting manager of the agency's Air Quality Division, says the money allows him to purchase a few more portable monitors, but doesn't come anywhere near providing the staff needed to respond to complaints.

"This will help purchase some equipment but it's people who will do the testing, people who will do the response and people who will do the enforcement," says Sandusky, adding that $600,000 a year would have helped the agency better fulfill the law's intentions.

But Sandusky did say the MPCA is committed to developing a protocol for responding to air quality complaints in the vicinity of lagoons. He says because they can't respond to all complaints, the agency is in the process of developing a criteria for when a lagoon needs to be investigated by personnel. In other words, say MPCA officials, the more complaints received on a particular facility, the more likely it is to be investigated with portable monitoring devices.

"By the time we provide a report to the Legislature next year we will be able to demonstrate we have a policy in place, that we have staff working on this, that we have developed a strategy for responding," says Sandusky. The Legislature also mandated that anyone proposing to construct or expand a livestock facility with a capacity of 500 animal units or more shall provide notice to each resident and each property owner within 5,000 feet of the construction site. Currently, many rural residents only learn of a new livestock factory in the neighborhood after it is under construction, giving them no opportunity to provide input into whether such a facility should be allowed into their community.

Local Control

Local units of government attempting to hold off the invasion of factory farm facilities had a good news-bad news experience at the Legislature. The good news is that LSP and its allies were able to hold off attempts by Sen. Steve Dille of Dassel to weaken the powers of local government to control what kind of livestock development occurs. His proposed legislation would have required local units of government to submit changes in their feedlot ordinances to the Pollution Control Agency and the Commissioner of Agriculture who would then be actively involved in the development of the new ordinance. Instead, the law now just requires the county to notify the state. Local officials can then decide if they want information and technical assistance in developing the ordinance.

Paul Sobocinski, a Wabasso, Minn., hog farmer and LSP organizer, says it was a minor victory to keep the powers of local control from being eroded further. However, the fact that the state must be notified leaves open the possibility that state officials will have a negative influence on how an ordinance is structured.

"We stripped out the worst of Dille's language, but damage was inflicted on local control," says Sobocinski.

Alternatives to Factories

As part of a $525,000 odor research initiative, the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture will receive $125,000 for researching, developing and promoting low-emission and low energy alternative hog production systems such as hoop houses, the Swedish system, and pasture farrowing.

In addition, a grant program was developed for groups of farmers who are trying to process livestock. Value-added on-farm processing has proven to be an effective way for sustainably produced commodities to access profitable markets. Under the provisions of the new program, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture can make grants of up to $50,000 each for feasibility, marketing analysis and pre-design of facilities. LSP member and Boyd, Minn., hog farmer Dennis Timmerman testified before lawmakers about the many obstacles he and 14 of his neighbors have faced during the past three years in establishing their own pork processing facility.

"I thought I knew a lot but we've had plenty of expensive obstacles to overcome," says Timmerman of the Prairie Farms Cooperative, which plans on opening a plant in New London, Minn., this fall. "That $50,000 would be helpful for anyone doing something like what we're doing."

Published in In Motion Magazine July 22, 1997.