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Swine farm pushback: 771 letters, a 3-hour meeting

MPCA meeting
A full house gathered at the Mabel Community Center Tuesday night to hear the Minnesota Pollution Control’s findings from investigations on the site of a proposed feedlot in Fillmore County.
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MABEL — Another full house greeted the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on Tuesday for a three-hour public meeting in Mabel.

The agency was there to present findings of two investigations regarding the composition of the land where the proposed Catalpa feedlot would be built. Plans for the feedlot call for a 4,890-head swine farrowing facility about 10 miles east of Harmony in Newburg Township, Fillmore County.

The first was an investigation of a potential sinkhole, which would require special protections needed for groundwater safety considering the area’s karst geology.

The second issue was the results of an Electrical Resistivity Imaging (ERI) survey. The survey is used to determine the composition of the land underground, specifically if significant karst features exist that would affect the proposed feedlot’s conditions.

The MPCA reported that their findings found no active sinkhole development and did not unearth any unexpected geological features. However, the proposed location of a stormwater pond was found to be above a highly weathered area, so plans must be considered for new placement.

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The two studies were requested by the MPCA after a record 771 comment letters were received prior to an initial public hearing in June.

That level of public involvement was just one reason that led MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine to attend Tuesday’s meeting.

"You can see by the people in the room they care about their community," Linc Stein said. "They care about safe drinking water and they care about their neighbors. That’s not common across Minnesota, so that’s really important to me. The other thing is, this is one of the most sensitive areas of the state from a groundwater contamination point of view. It’s really important that we start thinking about how we get those decisions better and better and protective of people’s futures."

Prior to the public comment period, Catalpa’s proposer Al Hein shared his beliefs regarding the proposed facility, the benefits of manure and the future of sustainable agriculture.

"Our community is very important to us," Hein said. "We all drink the same water. We all breathe the same air. No one cares more about their soils than the farmer. The MPCA is ... tasked with regulating this process. They care about the environment, they care about Minnesota and they also care about our rural communities."

His comments were interrupted by questions yelled by members of the audience: "Five thousand hogs though?" and "How much time does he get?"

When the floor was opened for public comments, dozens spoke, eventually causing the microphone batteries to die.

Despite the agency’s findings, many raised concerns about the quality and reliability of the testing used for the investigations. According to a release by the Responsible Agriculture in Karst Country group, geology experts have criticized the MPCA’s testing. Among them are University of Minnesota earth science professor Dr. Calvin Alexander, a geophysicist with the Department of Natural Resources; and Martin Larsen, a fifth-generation farmer and president of the Minnesota Cave Preserve and Minnesota Caving Club.

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All but a handful of those who spoke on Tuesday raised concerns regarding the risk of groundwater contamination, air quality, personal health and land value near the proposed Catalpa site.

"The question is, ‘Does Catalpa have the potential for significant environmental impact?’ You are empowered to make this decision, and we’re glad you are looking at the bigger picture," RAKC member Loni Kemp said. "Water is the focus, but don’t forget, odor and human health effects are all concerns of this community."

Thoughts on the new investigations, while voiced during the meeting, must be submitted as written comments to the agency. Those comments can be sent to Charles Peterson, the project manager for environmental review at the MPCA, at charles.peterson@state.mn.us or the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, 520 Lafayette Road N., St. Paul. The deadline is 4:30 p.m. Dec. 11.

The MPCA has until Dec. 31 to make a decision regarding requiring an Environmental Impact Statement for the Catalpa project.

"I’m going to make a decision about this project by the end of the month, and I’m committed to making that so that I don’t have to hand it off to the next commissioner," said Commissioner Linc Stine, who steps down Jan. 7.

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