June 21, 2008

Dairy Odors Drive Out Families

A large dairy in northwestern Minnesota with odors severe enough to drive nearby residents from their homes last week now faces legal problems.

State Attorney General Lori Swanson and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) jointly sued Excel Dairy on Friday, charging that the 1,500-cow operation just north of Thief River Falls has repeatedly violated air quality standards, environmental protection laws and feedlot operating permits.

State health officials advised several neighbors of the dairy on June 8 to leave their homes if possible after residents measured levels of foul-smelling hydrogen sulfide at more than 200 times higher than state air-quality standards allow.

State pollution control authorities sent a letter to the dairy on June 11 telling its managers to put chopped straw on top of the manure pit to form a crust, and to take other immediate measures to reduce hydrogen sulfide emissions.

MPCA Commissioner Brad Moore said Friday that the feedlot operators "have failed to implement even the most basic measures that would have helped to reduce odors."

Swanson said the state needed to step up the pressure to protect citizens and enforce the law. "Enough is enough. It's gone on a long time," she said. "It's affecting the county in serious ways, and hopefully this lawsuit will finally get [Excel's] attention so they'll make meaningful changes to fix the problem."

The rotten-egg odors cause headaches, sore throats, nausea and weakness, and can lead to dizziness, memory loss and more severe health problems over time.

Officials from the dairy's parent company, The Dairy Dozen of Veblen, S.D., could not be reached for comment on the lawsuit. The firm also owns other dairies in Minnesota and the Dakotas, and operates them through Prairie Ridge Management Co.

'We care about air quality'

Rick Millner, Prairie Ridge's chief executive officer, said in a statement last week that the dairy was working to solve the odor problems and had offered to pay for meals and motel accommodations for those who needed to leave their homes. "As dairy farmers, we care about air quality as much as our neighbors," Millner said.

Jeff Brouse, who lives less than half a mile from the feedlot, said the odors have been a problem for several years, but became overwhelming during the past few weeks. "I'm happy that the state's taking some action and not laying in the weeds," he said.

Brouse, his wife and two young children have slept on the floor at his parents' house for much of the past two weeks. Brouse said he returned home Thursday night and measured hydrogen sulfide levels that were still 10 times higher than the state considers acceptable.

Friday's lawsuit was filed in Marshall County District Court. It claims that between May 6 and June 15, Excel violated one air quality standard for hydrogen sulfide 185 times and another 134 times.

The complaint also charges that the dairy violated its permit by failing to maintain a crust on manure storage basins, that it failed to report excessive emissions to pollution authorities and failed to abate the air pollution. The suit also alleges the operation created a public nuisance by making its neighbors physically ill and driving four to six families from their homes.

A hearing has been scheduled for July 1.

On a separate track, the Marshall County Board voted unanimously recently to request its county attorney to take legal action to stop the odors.

John Timm, who lives with his wife less than half a mile from the dairy, said in court documents that the odors have caused constant headaches and eye irritation for him.

"My eyes water all the time now, and if I try to concentrate on anything like reading, water runs down my face," Timm said. "We return home when the wind changes, and leave and live in the camper when the odor gets bad. It is very difficult and expensive, and depressing to live like this."