Time for Action on Nitrate Pollution in our Groundwater

The Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB) is holding a public meeting in Red Wing at the St. James Hotel on Monday, March 25, at 5 p.m., to discuss the value of a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) on nitrate pollution in the karst area of southeastern Minnesota. (RSVP here.) Two million dollars is proposed in Gov. Tim Walz’s budget for the study. If history is any indicator, the GEIS will take years to complete and hundreds of hours of citizen engagement to ensure it isn’t coopted by corporate interests. Is it worth it? Is it the right use of money and time? And, most importantly, will it result in cleaner groundwater in karst country? Here are some thoughts based on my 20 years of experience working on this issue:

  • Can a study that was proposed in place of action, result in action? We know from the many studies already done that the groundwater in southeastern Minnesota is polluted by nitrates. It is certain that factory farms which use leaky multi-million gallon “lagoons” to store raw liquid manure, which is then often over-applied to cropland, contribute to this. That’s why hundreds of farmers and rural residents in Fillmore County called for an in-depth environmental review called an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on a massive 5,000-sow factory hog farm proposed in a high-risk karst area. The operation would have generated 7.3 million gallons of liquid manure a year. In Winona County, hundreds called for an EIS on a 3,000-cow dairy expansion that would have annually used 92 million gallons of the area's groundwater and produce 46 million gallons of manure and wastewater. In Wabasha County, neighbors showed why a dairy that wanted to expand by 1,385 cows and thus produce 13.8 million gallons of manure a year needed an EIS. In all three cases, it was clear that these large factory farms proposed in southeastern Minnesota’s karst region had “the potential for significant environmental impact,” which is the threshold for ordering an EIS.
  • However, in 2018 then-MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine did not follow the law and use the power he had to order an EIS on these three massive projects. Instead, he made a request to the Environmental Quality Board in his last days in office for a Generic Environmental Impact Statement study on the issue of nitrate pollution in karst country. This allowed the permitting on these operations to move forward with no in-depth environmental analysis, and the public’s concerns were ignored. Fortunately, the proposals in Fillmore County and Winona County were stopped by citizens demanding action at the local level. Unfortunately, the factory farm in Wabasha County received its local permits.
  • Why a GEIS is not a substitute for an EIS: It’s worth understanding what an EIS is and why it is a needed regulatory tool that the MPCA has failed to use on factory farms. An EIS is a detailed examination of the harm a proposed project could cause the community and an examination of how (or if) that harm can be mitigated. It considers alternative designs and locations. For factory farms, an EIS would be done by the MPCA but paid for by the proposer. This makes sense because the proposer is asking for public permission to build a project that will pollute, potentially catastrophically, and the public has an interest in making sure that the proposer’s desire to profit does not come at the expense of the community. It’s about getting it right so private profit does not come at the cost of public harm. However, MPCA staff have never ordered an EIS on a factory farm. (In 25 years, two have been court ordered and the now abolished MPCA Citizens’ Board ordered one over the objections of MPCA staff and Commissioner Stine. Only one of those was actually completed.) An EIS addresses the specific project and its specific risks, which a GEIS cannot do. And a project cannot be permitted until the EIS analysis is completed. A GEIS does not halt any proposed projects.
  • Do GEIS’s lead to change? A GEIS on animal agriculture was conducted in Minnesota several years ago, and it was prompted by the public outcry over the harms factory farms were causing to rural communities. This was funded by the Minnesota Legislature in 1998 and completed in 2003. Land Stewardship Project was on the 24-person stakeholder group that advised the GEIS. LSP demanded that the study not be co-opted by corporate interests. While the study produced some useful information, it did not lead to any meaningful change and factory farms continue to be poorly regulated.
  • Can the state agency that has rubber-stamped factory farms and failed to regulate them conduct a study that leads to action? We have seen the MPCA fail to meaningfully regulate factory farms and in fact promote them. Here are three examples—out of many—that call into question the MPCA’s integrity on this issue: 1) In an analysis of whether or not to order an EIS, the MPCA missed four homes within one mile of a proposed factory hog farm in Goodhue County and 13 wells within one mile of the factory farm. These wells are the source of the neighbors' drinking water. When asked to correct the mistake, the MPCA refused. 2) The massive Riverview Dairy LLP operates nine farms in western Minnesota totaling over 40,000 cows, and uses over 500,000,000 gallons of groundwater per year. The cumulative impact of this integrated operation has never been done and an EIS has never been ordered. 3) Even with a signed public letter from MPCA Commissioner Stine committing to do continuous air quality monitoring at factory hog farms in Goodhue County, the continuous air quality monitoring was never done.
  • Do we need another study on how to address nitrate pollution? In fact, the issue of nitrates in our water has been studied and reports that lay out meaningful actions that need to be taken have been recently done. Here are two: Beyond the Status Quo: 2015 EQB Water Policy Report and Nitrogen in Minnesota Surface Water (MPCA). These studies have recommendations which are on-point and can make a difference, such as increasing and maintaining living cover of farmland across watersheds. But the recommendations have yet to be meaningfully implemented and the funding needed to make them a reality, such as fully funding the Forever Green Research Initiative at the University of Minnesota, has not happened yet. (Although we are working on such funding at the Legislature; see Action Needed for State Investment in a New Ag Economy.) Is it more research on nitrate pollution, or a lack in clarity of vision and political courage, that’s lacking?

But it is not hopeless. We can improve the water quality in southeastern Minnesota with bold action and political courage. We need the MPCA, Governor Walz and the Legislature to use the authority they have now to take action to protect our water. Here are two things that could be done now to start:

1) Insist funding for the study be linked to a moratorium on factory farms over 1,000 animal units that will stay in place until the study is complete and its conclusions implemented. This will not only help the environment but also small- and moderate-sized independent livestock producers that are suffering low prices due in part to overproduction from large corporate-backed factory farms. This would need legislative action and the support of the Governor.


2) The MPCA should order an EIS for every factory farm proposed in karst country. The MPCA has the authority to do this now and should do it. There is no doubt massive factory farms proposed in karst country have the potential for significant environmental impacts.

If you attend the EQB meeting on March 25 in Red Wing, I encourage you to bring this thinking to the table. And I want to hear your thoughts if something here resonates with you or if you have some additional insights into the issue. This EQB meeting is an opportunity for us to make our voices heard. The Commissioners of eight state agencies should be there and need to hear that we won’t let our expectations be lowered when it comes to protecting our water. Without clean water rural communities cannot thrive. To say it more succinctly: “Water is life.”

LSP Policy and Organizing Program director Bobby King can be reached at 612-722-6377 or via e-mail.