Last month in a special report, the Star Tribune newspaper revealed how much water pollution from agriculture is costing taxpayers. At $125 million in 2014 alone, the price of industrialized, monocrop agriculture is significant and only likely to grow.
In north-central Minnesota, we have an opportunity during the next few weeks
to prevent some of this pollution and hold a polluter accountable to paying for that prevention. R.D. Offutt Company (RDO), the world’s largest potato producer, is pursuing an expansion project in the Pineland Sands Aquifer, which spans from north of Park Rapids down to Staples. This region is part of a watershed that feeds into the Upper Mississippi River, a basin that supplies drinking water for 1.7 million people in the Twin Cities. The project would convert vast stretches of formerly forested land to chemically-intensive potato farming, and would entail drilling more high capacity wells for irrigation in an area already awash with irrigated fields.
Last February, alarmed by the scale of the proposed project and uncertain how intensive water use and extensive land conversion would impact the aquifer, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) ordered RDO to complete an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW). An EAW would involve a brief analysis of potential environmental harms the project could cause before allowing it to be permitted. It determines whether a more in-depth Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is needed, which would be paid for by RDO and require the company to take action to prevent those harms. However, rather than undergo the relatively simple process of an EAW, Offutt appealed the DNR’s decision in court, and the agency dropped the requirement in exchange for a reduction in the number of permit applications.
Now, instead of real environmental review, the DNR is proposing to work with RDO on a publicly-funded study that would be paid for by taxpayers and allow the project to continue un-reviewed. Under this scenario, taxpayers bear the cost not only of increased environmental damage, but also of investigating these harms — a responsibility that should be borne by the potato giant. Local citizens from the grassroots organizing groups Toxic Taters and the Land Stewardship Project have petitioned the DNR to hold RDO accountable to that responsibility and order an EAW. The DNR could make their decision as soon as next week.
In essence, if the DNR chooses not to order an EAW, the public is being forced to subsidize the profitability of an agribusiness giant, at the expense of our water and land. But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, given that we subsidize companies like RDO in another way. Federally subsidized crop insurance, the biggest government agricultural program in the country, props up large farms and incentivizes practices causing pollution. According to a Land Stewardship Project analysis, RDO was Minnesota’s second highest recipient of federal crop insurance premium subsidies in 2011, garnering over $1.1 million that year (on average, 62 cents of every dollar of crop insurance premium costs are covered by taxpayers).
Of course, the public costs are not only financial. Allowing RDO’s expansion project to proceed unchecked continues to put Minnesota’s groundwater at risk for depletion and contamination. Three-fourths of Minnesotans rely on groundwater as their drinking water source, and according the U.S. Geological Survey’s Jim Stark, in many parts of the state we are “…approaching limits to water sustainability…and using so much water that wildlife in lakes and streams is stressed and water for human needs is threatened.” Indeed, in the Straight River Watershed, where many of RDO’s fields are located, water use for agricultural irrigation has increased by an average of 77 million gallons per year since 1988, with no sign of slowing, according to the area’s Groundwater Management Plan. RDO’s project would pump another 166 million gallons annually from the aquifer through five new wells alone, and the company may still pursue permits for additional wells.
Local residents have already seen the impacts of water contamination from intensive agricultural practices. Park Rapids, which is home to RDO’s processing plant and surrounded by over 9,000 acres of potatoes, had to pay $2.5 million for a new water treatment plant last year due to nitrate contamination.
It’s no secret that large corporations try to externalize their costs, often at the expense of communities and the environment. Avoiding an EAW is another way for RDO to do just that. It’s the DNR’s responsibility as a public agency to hold RDO accountable for those costs, rather than shift them onto the public.
LSP organizer Stephanie Porter can be reached at 612-722-6377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.