In August, after the Citizens Board of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency overruled a recommendation from agency staff and ordered a full-blown environmental impact statement for a proposed mega-dairy operation in Stevens County, environmentalists heralded the move as a historic and increasingly rare victory in their fight against the proliferation of so-called “factory farms.”
It was a much different story at the Capitol on Wednesday, where members of the Senate’s Rural Task Force grilled MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine about the decision.
The most vocal of the critics, Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, was particularly pointed in her remarks about the Citizens Board, saying its demand for an EIS will likely cause Riverview LLP to abandon a $55 million project and reflected a lack of understanding of modern agricultural practices.
The Morris-based partnership, a leading player in the state’s fast consolidating dairy industry, proposed to build the 900,000-square-foot total confinement facility in Baker Township. With 8,850 Jersey cows, 500 heifers and two massive earthen pits to store manure and wastewater, the dairy would have been the largest in the state.
Rosen said she was “very troubled” that the board rejected the recommendation from agency staff to skip the EIS, saying that study would cost Riverview between $1 million and $2 million.
Rosen also called into question the MPCA’s unusual governance structure, which grants major decision-making power to the board’s eight citizen members.
“We’ve given our Citizens Board a tremendous amount of power,” said Rosen. “I’m very concerned about what we’ve unleashed.”
Linc Stine, who serves as chair of the Citizens Board, said he sided with staff on the issue of the EIS. Still, Linc Stine defended the board’s action, saying that the board has “a long history” of balancing public concern with the limits of its regulatory authority and is mindful that its decisions have to stand up in court.
“In general, I think the board’s decisions have been very good,” he said.
In the order to require an EIS, the MPCA found that the proposed dairy has the potential for “significant environmental impacts” and sought more details on issues ranging from air quality, odor, well water appropriation, manure management and possible effects on the nearby Pomme de Terre River, a badly polluted tributary to the Minnesota River.
Linc Stine noted that citizen board members, while appointed by the governor, must be confirmed by the Senate, with at least one member coming from the agricultural sector.
That did not win over Rosen, who dismissed the industry’s current designee on the board — Dr. Kathryn Draeger of Clinton — as a “sustainable ag producer.”
“That’s not real ag. This is real ag,” Rosen said.
After the meeting, Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, echoed many of Rosen’s concerns and said he expects Republicans to pursue the issue aggressively in the coming session.
“It’s safe to say all options are on the table,” said Weber, who added that possible remedies range from an overhaul of specific permitting laws to more robust challenges to nominees to the Citizens Board.
While regulatory reform is a perennial feature of the GOP’s legislative agenda, Weber said it might hold appeal for some Democrats at the Capitol, especially those from rural districts.
“Based on the last election, there should be some rural Democrats saying we need to discuss these issues,” said Weber, a reference to the GOP’s strong showing in outstate races that helped propel the party’s takeover of the House.
As the task force took testimony from Linc Stine, the DFLers on the panel remained largely silent.
In one of two presentations from the agricultural lobby, David Ward, a former Wisconsin lawmaker and director of government relations and dairy policy for the Cooperative Network, urged the panel to consider reforms along the lines of Wisconsin’s Livestock Siting Act.
Ward, who authored the legislation, credited its “clear and consistent standards” with spurring growth in Wisconsin’s dairy sector, where production is now at record levels.
He said he began working on the issue in response to a fellow legislator’s efforts to place a cap on livestock farms at 750 “animal units.” At the time, he said, farmers looking to expand operations routinely faced opposition from local governments and property owners.
Ward said bipartisanship was critical to the passage of the siting act, which was signed into law in 2004 by then-Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat. That proved that “the agricultural and environmental communities can coexist in a reasonable manner,” he said.
The law remains a source of controversy in Wisconsin, where environmental groups, property owners and county and township officials have complained it effectively stripped local government of land-use authority.
The task force did not hear about any of those complaints.
The only other testifier at the hearing, Perry Aasness, the director of the Minnesota Agrigrowth Council, noted that the dairy industry in Wisconsin is expanding at twice the rate of Minnesota’s and said lawmakers need to “to make sure that Minnesota doesn’t become an island or an outlier.”
Although the permitting process “is working pretty well by and large,” Aasness cited Riverview as an example of regulations that have “a chilling effect on new investments in agriculture.”
“The dairy industry has choices about where to invest,” Aasness said. “As a result of the Citizens Board, Riverview is looking at North Dakota and South Dakota for expansions.”
While Riverview hasn’t totally ruled out its proposed expansion in Stevens County, he said, it won’t “wait around if the Minnesota permitting process results in delays and increased costs.”
“It’s not just this decision,” Aasness said. For the industry, he said, the bigger question is: “Is this going to set a precedent for other animal agriculture projects going forward?”