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Proposed changes for feedlots include common sense, first step measures

Permit must go further to curb Minnesota’s nitrate problem

St. Paul, Minn – The Minnesota Pollution Control’s Agency’s proposed changes to water permits for industrial-scale feedlots include targeted, common sense regulations for a sector

that has gone too long without adequate oversight. Still, additional permit requirements are needed to adequately curb dangerous nitrate pollution in waters across our state.

The permit applies only to Minnesota’s largest feedlots: those with more than 1,000 animal units. While these Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operations (CAFOs) comprise only about 1,000 of the 17,000 feedlots operating across the state, they generate about a third of the manure. Runoff from manure spread on agricultural fields as well as commercial fertilizer applications are primary drivers of Minnesota’s nitrate-contaminated drinking water crisis.

The most significant of MPCA’s proposed water permit changes target operations in the state’s karst and Central Sands regions, where the landscape allows nitrate-laden agricultural pollution to quickly seep into underground drinking water supplies. The new permit would prohibit feedlots in those areas from applying manure during the winter and place conditions on fall-spreading, such as planting cover crops.

All permittees would be required to start monitoring fields where manure is applied for contaminated runoff.

“These are incremental, reasonable measures. Feedlot operators should not be allowed to simply throw manure on top of frozen ground where it doesn’t provide benefits to crops and is

highly likely to run off into nearby waters. In sensitive areas, feedlots should have to be more careful about how and when they spread manure. It's basically just common sense,” Joy

Anderson, supervising attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA), said of the changes in the draft permit. “We are glad to see the state finally taking steps to address the holes in these permits. But the fact is more still needs to be done to really safeguard our waters and public health."

The MPCA could and should go even further in its permit revision. MCEA is calling for MPCA to require additional monitoring to ensure feedlot operators are complying with the restrictions in their permits, prohibit winter application throughout the state, and ban the application of manure when the state advises that runoff is likely because rain is forecast. MPCA should also make data regarding manure application readily available to the public so that potential violations can be more easily reported.

The revisions are a direct response to intense local and federal scrutiny over our state’s failed handling of the drinking water crisis plaguing Southeastern Minnesota, where an estimated 9,218 residents have nitrate-levels in their private wells exceeding public health limits. The problem is also prevalent in the Central Sands region, where state testing of private wells showed increased nitrate levels across dozens of area townships.

The proposed permit changes, if eventually adopted, would better protect vulnerable groundwater aquifers in this part of the state, as well as other vulnerable areas with persistent nitrate contamination such as the Central Sands. The MPCA has also committed to revising its feedlot rules for the first time in twenty years, a process that is expected to begin this fall. The rules apply to all feedlots in the state.

Nitrate levels as low as 3 mg/L have been linked to birth defects as well as cancers such as colorectal and bladder cancer. The current federal safe drinking water limit for nitrates is 10 mg per liter. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering lowering that amid new research on health impacts.

The EPA mandated state action on Minnesota’s nitrate pollution crisis after MCEA led a coalition of environmental groups to petition the federal government to intervene in April 2023 on behalf of endangered residents. The agency ordered the state to immediately provide clean drinking water alternatives to affected residents, and make a plan to address the root causes of the pollution.

Actions addressing both the immediate drinking water crisis and the long-term causes are crucial.

“Drilling new wells and treating the water solves the problem of what’s coming out of one individual’s faucet, but it doesn’t clean up the contamination in our environment,” Anderson said. “You go to a lake in August that’s full of algae and slime, that’s because of nutrient pollution. We have to deal with the fact that we’ve degraded a resource we need for drinking water for future generations, for a healthy ecosystem, for plant and animal life.”

The public has until August 9 to comment on the proposed permit changes, at which point the MPCA will decide whether to adopt them. MCEA will be among those submitting a detailed comment.

Questions or requests for interviews with MCEA staff about the proposed changes can be directed to Sarah Horner. The best way to reach her today is on her cell at (612) 868-3024.


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