In the September 24, 2014, "Meet The Candidates" debate for Minnesota House District 12A, Jeff Backer was lamenting regulations in the state of Minnesota when he said (21:39 stamp):
We have regulations that are very difficult. We have a farm in Stevens County who was turned down by the Minnesota Pollution Agency for a permit.
That's not exactly what the Minnesota Pollution Control Agancy's Citizen's Board did at its August 26, 2014 meeting; rather, after hearing testimony from local residents and a townshop official, as well as receiving letters raising concerns about the project, the board voted 6-1 to require an in-depth Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Riverview LLP before it would grant a permit.
Moreover, this action was unprecedented, rather than a routine result of regulations, as family farmer and Land Stewardship Project organizar Paul Sobocinski writes in LSP Applauds MPCA Citizens’ Board Ordering of EIS on Massive Dairy Factory Farm:
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Citizens’ Board ruled this week that Riverview LLP’s proposed 8,850-cow dairy operation in Stevens County must undergo an in-depth Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). To my knowledge, this is the first time that the MPCA has ordered an EIS of a factory farm.
The Land Stewardship Project applauds the Citizens’ Board for this historic decision. An EIS will allow the proposal’s negative impacts on water quality and quantity, local roads and existing independent family dairy farms to be fully analyzed before the project is allowed to seek a permit.
The proposed operation in Baker Township would house 8,850 cows and 500 heifers, making it among the largest operations of its kind in the state. Riverview LLP is already the largest dairy-producing firm in Minnesota, owning several other massive operations throughout this state, as well as South Dakota. In total, Riverview LLP owns over 45,000 cows, according to a 2013 article in Beef Magazine.
Fortunately, the MPCA Citizens’ Board took a careful look at concerns raised by neighbors and voted 6-1 for an EIS on Aug. 26. Water quantity and quality were chief among neighbors’ concerns. Many streams in the Pomme de Terre watershed, where the factory farm is proposed, are already polluted. . . .
Concern about water quality isn't small potatoes in the Upper Minnesota River Valley watershed (of which the Pomme de Terre is a part), where many citizens have worked for years to clean up the river. Read the rest of Sobocinski's assessment here.
The board required an additional study before a permit would be issued--and the decision was so rare as to be unique. Moreover, the decision was not a result of increased regulation by the current legislature as Backer implies as he continues talking. Rather, the MPCA Citizen Board represents a long standing opportunity for local citizens to convey their concerns to their government.
To Bluestem, this seems a lot like the ability of citizens to petition the government, a very basic right guaranteed by the Constitution.
Is Backer simply bloviating on Republican anti-government talking points? Or is he suggesting that he'll strip the MPCA Citizens Board the ability to review permit applications--and the ability of local citizens to raise questions before the Board?
The large dairy operation, which owns facilities in Minnesota, South Dakota and Nebraska, has been turned back before on projects in Minnesota before, the Fargo Forum reported in a 2011 overview of the business, but at the local level,in Backer's home county:
The same year , Riverview tried in vain to build a heifer feedlot in Redpath Township of Minnesota’s Traverse County, but were turned away because of local resident concerns about labor, odor and traffic. . . .
Also in 2008, they were turned away a second time in Traverse County, this time in an effort to build a new dairy. . . .
Read the Forum business news article to get an overview of the operation.
Here's the video, starting with his comment about the permit:
It's also worth noting that far from being hostile to agriculture, incumbent legislator Jay McNamar (DFL, Elbow Lake) is endorsed by both the Minnesota Farmers Union (which leans DFL) and the Minnesota Farm Bureau (which leans Republican). Perhaps they recognize something in McNamar's public service to agriculture that Backer cannot.
The back story behind the board's decision
To understand how Backer is muddying the water here, here's coverage of the request for additional review from a local paper.
Via the September 17, 2014 Morris Sun, Kay Grossman of the Chokia Review reported:
About 14 Chokio residents traveled to St. Paul on Tuesday, Aug. 26, to attend the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency hearing at which Riverview Dairy was expected to be granted a permit to build the proposed Baker Dairy. The dairy would be located about five miles south of Chokio.
After testimony from several agencies, seven local residents, and Brad Fehr representing Riverview Dairy, the MPCA Citizens' Board rejected their staff's recommendation to grant a permit to Baker Dairy based just on an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW), and ruled instead that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) would need to be completed before a permit is granted.
The Citizens’ Board consists of the MPCA commissioner and an eight-member panel appointed by the governor and by the state senate. The board considers and makes decisions on various environmental issues, including the determination of permits and impact statements.
Charles Peterson, project manager for the MPCA, and George Schwint, MPCA feedlot engineer, both who worked on the Environmental Assessment Worksheet for Riverview Dairy, opened the hearing with a presentation.
Peterson explained that the proposed dairy is to be built in Section 36 of Baker Township and house 9,200 animal units. The EAW was submitted and reviewed by MPCA staff, who worked with Riverview Dairy in preparing it.
Twenty-four comment letters were received, six of them from government agencies and 18 from citizens - all requesting that an Environmental Impact Statement be completed.
The concerns brought up in the letters addressed groundwater supply, odor and manure management, damage to roads and wetlands, and the socioeconomic concerns that large dairies are driving small farmers out of business and driving up the prices of cropland.
Once the MPCA staff had answered the board's questions, public testimony was heard from John Kleindl, Nathan Burmeister, Kathy DeBuhr, Lila Anderson and Jodi DeCamp, all of rural Chokio. Those who testified have also spoken at hearings held in Chokio. Their testimony reiterated their statements.
Burmeister, chairman of the Baker Township board, addressed the committee and said, "We sent a mailing to our registered voters [about the proposed dairy], and 70 percent of them returned that they are opposed to the new dairy."
Jodi DeCamp concluded the testimony by saying, “The Bake Dairy proposal only works for Baker Dairy. The EAW does not address the socioeconomic issues in our neighborhoods – the effect on property values and farming opportunities, the loss of families who would likely move, the affect on property taxes needed to maintain roads. These are the major concerns of those who live there. There is no quantifiable benefit to the local residents if Baker Dairy were to be built. There are many unanswered questions. We encourage you to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement.”
Board members asked many questions about the existing dairies, learning that Riverview has two dairies in Swift County, about 35 miles from the proposed site, and in Stevens County there will be four – if Baker is built – each being about four to six miles apart.
In the end, the board agreed that there were too many unanswered questions and denied their staff's recommendation to grant a permit to Baker Dairy.
The board directed the MPCA staff to conduct a health risk assessment in the area to look at cumulative impacts on health.
The board concluded, “The proposed project does have the potential of significant environmental effects. The MPCA is ordered to publish that the project will need to have an EIS and adopt a staff resolution that says that the Riverview LLP Baker Dairy project proposed in the EAW does have the potential for significant environmental effects.”
If Riverview conducts an Environmental Impact Study, it will need to address specific areas for finding of facts, including:
The lack of observation well data. The permit for the well was granted five years ago, Need recent data, in light of more irrigation wells in the area.
Socioeconomic impacts, including roads, highway safety, land and property values and people leaving.
Impaired waters. The fact that Riverview has not lined up adequate acres to spread its manure is a factor.
What are the cumulative impacts of hydrogen sulfides from actual monitoring, not just modeling?
Extreme weather events needs to be investigated further.
The number of animal feedlot activities in the surrounding area should be further examined.
At a meeting with the Baker Township board on Monday, Sept. 8, Fehr told the board that it was unlikely they could complete the Environmental Impact Statement.
This story was adapted from a piece published in the Sept. 11 edition of the Chokio Review. The information and quotes for this article were taken from a webcast of the MPCA Citizen’s Board Hearing which can be viewed at http://www.pca.state.mn.us/index.php/about-mpca/mpca-overview/mpca-citizens-board/mpca-citizens-board-archived-meeting-documents.html#august-2014.
What exactly would Jeff Backer do to change this process? Eliminate the Citizen's Board? The ability of citizens to request an EIS?
Bonus: we noticed that Backer has walked back his claim that all towns and cities on the Dakotas' side of our shared border are bigger than their Minnesota counterparts. Was it something we said? He still doesn't address the historical data that suggests the communities on the western side of the border generally have been larger than their Minnesota counterpart border cities--while continuing to blame Minnesota Democrats currently serving in office for trends that began in the 19th century.
Map: The Pomme de Terre River watershed, via Wikipedia.
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