Thief River’s Yuck Mountain

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Now that the MPCA has finally gotten around to taking steps to shut down that horrific health hazard that its owner, Excel, chooses to call a dairy farm, neighbors are left to wonder: what about the millions of gallons of manure left behind?

Like nuclear energy, one of factory farming’s Achilles Heels is the waste. Of course, liquid feces doesn’t have a half-life measured in tens of thousands of years, but it can make life plenty miserable when too much of it collects in one place.

Just ask the families living near the Excel Dairy who were told to evacuate the area by the Minnesota Department of Health because of repeated hydrogen sulfide violations. During the warm months of 2008 and 2009, the dairy violated hydrogen sulfide standards almost 800 times; at one point the level was 200 times higher than what is considered safe by the state.

The operation has the dubious distinction of being one of the few “farms” in the nation to be officially declared a public health hazard. The facility, which at one time housed 1,545 cows, has operated in violation of state law almost from the time it opened five years ago, according to Minnesota Public Radio.

I recently talked to Julie Jansen, who fought her own battle with hydrogen sulfide-emitting factory farms in Renville County several years ago. She has traveled to Thief River Falls and helped the Excel neighbors measure hydrogen sulfide levels, among other things. She was shocked by the levels that were being documented on a regular basis. Coming from a veteran of the Renville County Hog Wars, that’s saying something.

The MPCA’s announcement that it would no longer issue permits for Excel Dairy is long overdue, and the agency’s inability to get a flagrant violator of state law to even give it the time of day is a travesty. Fortunately, the ability of Excel to operate illegally for so long is not going unnoticed. Last week the Senate Health, Housing and Family Security Committee held a hearing on Excel. There, rural families told how the operation has made their lives hell, and lawmakers wondered aloud how things had gotten so out of hand.

That’s a good start toward accountability on this unfortunate incident and setting in place the infrastructure needed to make sure this doesn’t happen again. However, the immediate problem is that millions of gallons of liquid manure is sitting there in overflowing pits, waiting for spring thaw.

Excel neighbor Jeff Brouse told the Star Tribune that the MPCA’s preliminary decision to shut down Excel for good will mean little until he actually sees the manure pits destroyed. Keep in mind that the cows have been gone from the facility since last winter, and yet all the fetid waste left behind has still been making people sick.

When and by whom will those pits be cleaned up? I have a bad feeling that question will be debated for quite some time, while a lot of lawyers get rich and more northwest Minnesotans get sick.

Often when a factory livestock operation is proposed in a community, concerned citizens ask a basic question: what happens if the operation goes out of business or just leaves town? What will happen to the mess that’s left behind? The typical response by factory farm operators and their supporters is one of derision: “You don’t know anything about farming, so shut up.”

Only raising livestock on this scale is not farming—it’s an industrial process where a valuable plant food, manure, is produced in such quantities that it becomes a waste product to be gotten rid of, instead of an integral element in the nutrient cycle.

And that’s the real tragedy here. You see, unlike nuclear waste manure can be applied to the land safely and in a way that greatly benefits the soil and what is grown on that soil. Farmers in this state and throughout the Midwest have been proving for generations that systems with the right balance of crops, animals and (just as importantly) people can make a very sustainable use of manure.

But the Excel example reminds us that the industrialized model of livestock production is inherently flawed. Excel appears to be a particularly bad actor here—I doubt even agribusiness’s most faithful boosters could defend its actions these days.

But there’s a danger that policymakers will see Excel as an anomaly, a unique situation where raising many, many animals in confinement didn’t work out quite like it should. Once this dairy is shut down and the proper people are punished, then things can go on as before, right?

Let’s hope not. For years, the MPCA tried to find technical solutions to Excel’s polluting manure pits. None of them worked. Was it because Excel has incompetent management? Maybe. But sometimes it’s time to admit the obvious: even the most well-run factory farm is a threat to human health and the environment. As we’ve reported in this blog before, such operations are causing problems across rural America, not just in Thief River Falls.

Throwing some straw on top of a manure pit (0ne of the “technical” fixes that is often attempted on factory farms) is like putting a Band-Aid on a patient who keeps drinking poison—it’s not getting at the source of the problem. CAFO livestock production is a technology whose time has passed. If Excel helps lawmakers, government officials and the general public become aware of that, then at least some of the anguish those rural residents in northwest Minnesota have experienced won’t be in vain.

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