ALTURA, Minn. — When Bob Schell learned last week that a representative from the federal Environmental Protection Agency had arrived at his cattle ranch just outside Altura, he was surprised and upset.
The visit was somewhat unprecedented.
Schell wasn’t the only one. EPA investigators also visited Shea Dairy near Viola on November 2, 2023, and the owners also expressed surprise at the unannounced inspection.
The EPA, noting the ongoing problem of high nitrate levels in some private wells, is ordering the state to address the problem.
In a letter dated November 7, 2023, EPA informed the State of Minnesota that it had 30 days to submit a schedule and work plan to assist affected well owners. This plan must provide education and awareness as well as alternative drinking water to residents whose water exceeds the maximum contaminant level – 10 mg/L or 10 parts per million – for nitrates in the groundwater of their private wells .
In southeastern Minnesota, contaminated groundwater is the result of karst geology that dominates the region with sinkholes. Porous rock transports water and contaminants to fluid aquifers. Karst geology, combined with the region’s row farming, puts groundwater at risk, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
MDH also notes that nitrate concentrations of 10 ppm or more can cause adverse health effects in babies 6 months or younger.
The EPA request follows an emergency petition filed in April 2023 by 11 groups, including the Twin Cities-based Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. This petition asks the EPA to act under the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, although the EPA itself notes that the SDWA does not apply to private wells that serve fewer than 25 people.
The EPA order focuses on the eight counties in southeastern Minnesota – Dodge, Fillmore, Goodhue, Houston, Mower, Olmsted, Wabasha and Winona – which represent what the EPA calls the “karst region.” The federal agency added that if the state does not comply, it will be forced to establish its own emergency enforcement authority.
“While this letter is largely focused on addressing the immediate health concerns regarding nitrate contamination of drinking water in the Karst region, Minnesota must also develop and implement a long-term solution to achieve reductions in nitrate concentrations in drinking water supplies,” the order letter states. . “Developing a comprehensive understanding of potential sources of nitrate contamination is an important immediate step for the State. An analysis of the risks of current and future contamination of nitrate-impacted groundwater will be essential to determining long-term solutions, and such analysis should incorporate the latest science and technology.”
“I’ve never seen the EPA come and inspect farms in the 11 years I’ve been working in the county,” said Olmsted County Conservation Technician Martin Larsen.
Larsen’s counterpart in Winona County agreed. Winona County Feedlot Manager Carly McGinty said, “This really surprised me. The last time the EPA visited Minnesota for feedlots was more than 10 years ago.
McGinty said in Winona County, the EPA and MPCA first asked to visit a dairy near Altura, but when the dairy owner wasn’t home, they moved to a farm neighboring cattle. Both farms – JFK Dairy and Schell Pine Grove Farm – are well below the 1,000 animal unit limit that requires a permit from the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, which is governed by the EPA.
Neither farm, she said, has been cited for violations in recent years.
Larsen added that although he was not present, he spoke to the owner of Shea Dairy, who said he spent three hours with inspectors on his property.
Reached by phone, Tom Shea said he had no further comment beyond what he told Larsen.
However, in an email obtained by the Post Bulletin, Sharmin Syed of the EPA said the agency often acts in conjunction with state agencies and that inspections are carried out under authority granted by the Clean Water Act.
Syed added that the inspection reports, once completed, will be available on the EPA website. No reports were currently available as of November 9, 2023.
The EPA’s action caused Minnesota lawmakers to cry foul.
U.S. Rep. Brad Finstad, MN-1, sent a letter on November 7, 2023, to the EPA referring to the April 2023 petition as being sent by “several organizations with a history of anti-agriculture environmental activism.” This petition, he noted, asks the EPA to issue orders “prohibiting concentrated feeding operations (CAFOs) from expanding or constructing new operations.”
“In the six months since the dangerous and unscientific petition, EPA inspectors arrived unannounced on the lands of Minnesota family farmers, questioning them and inspecting their farms for several hours and in the middle of peak season harvests,” Finstad said. said.
Finstad noted that because at least one of the sites visited did not require an NPDES permit, the landowner had the right to demand that EPA vacate the premises and seek a court order.
He went on to ask the EPA to answer questions about the justification for “conducting an unannounced inspection”, and to be transparent and “restore trust with Minnesota farmers” regarding any future inspections and the petition to ‘april.
State Rep. Steve Jacob, R-Altura, and state Sen. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said it was “troubling that the EPA has asked the state to replace environmental work carried out by local governments.
Drazkowski added that the repercussions of the inspections will ultimately be paid for by taxpayers. With the EPA estimating that more than 9,200 people get their water from wells with nitrate levels above 10 ppm in the karst region, the cost to the state in education and drinking water alternatives could be important. Additionally, he said family farmers would likely face heavier regulations due to the consequences of the measure.
This, he says, is not fair. “Farming practices with livestock and row crops have changed dramatically, and they continue to refine the precision of their environmental efforts.”
The Post Bulletin repeatedly contacted by phone and email four EPA members listed as contacts on the matter, including the inspector who visited area farms. None responded.
Larsen said the shallowest aquifers – those closest to the surface – may show a difference in nitrate levels due to a change in agricultural practices in just five years. He showed his own well where, when he bought the land and changed the way it was farmed, nitrate levels went from 12 ppm to steady values between 3 and 4 ppm within a few years.
For deeper aquifers, he explained, the time scale is measured in decades, 50 or 60 years.
The problems we face today, he said, coincide with the advent of commercial fertilizers, the application of which was – and remains – unregulated. Meanwhile, organic fertilizers – manure from dairy and hog farms – are highly regulated by the MPCA and tracked by farmers who must provide manure application records to feedlot officials upon request.
Larsen said there’s a reason why environmental activism focuses on feedlots rather than row crop farmers who apply nitrates to the soil. “It would be political suicide for anyone to try to do that.”
He added that it would be scientifically difficult to write a law setting limits on commercial fertilizers, because that law would have to take into account different soil profiles and other variables.
“I think there is an opportunity to start looking at the amount of commercial fertilizer applied to acres of corn,” he said. Corn and soybeans, he said, don’t help with the nitrate problem, because alfalfa pulls nitrates out of the soil and actually reduces nitrates and the potential for runoff.
For its part, the MCEA is delighted to see progress on the issue of drinking water from impacted wells in the karst region.
In a letter linked to a fundraising email, the organization notes, the EPA “put Minnesota on notice of the need to work with state agencies to urgently resolve the water crisis.” nitrate-contaminated drinking water that threatens the karst region of southeastern Minnesota and provide safe drinking water.” , alternative drinking water for affected residents.
In the same letter, Leigh Currie, MCEA’s director of strategic litigation, said, “It is significant that this issue is addressed to multiple agencies because this issue calls for a ‘one-size-fits-all solution in Minnesota.’ We know what causes this pollution. It’s time for Minnesota’s farm lobby and the Department of Agriculture to come to the table and agree on real solutions to eliminate this public health threat.
However, Lucas Sjostrom, executive director of Minnesota Milk, said MCEA and other environmental groups are unwilling to work with farmers to create better practices — a process that has been happening for decades to help improve the health of farmers. soils and guarantee cleaner waters – but rather these. the groups only want to sue.
“They don’t understand the science — both biological and social — to solve this problem,” Sjostrom said. “They are funded to file lawsuits.”
He noted that the email sent by the MCEA did not propose any course of action or alternative agricultural practices. Instead, he announced his victory and asked for money with a link to a donations page to fund further litigation.
Sjostrom said the nitrate problem doesn’t come from large, highly regulated feedlots, but more often from small operations that don’t have the resources to maintain proper water quality practices.
He added that among wells that draw water with nitrates above 10 ppm, the vast majority are older wells that don’t meet current standards.
Sjostrom said he would be happy to have the EPA come visit Minnesota more often if it wants to work with farmers to find practices that will help keep the water clean. But, he added, surprise inspections during harvest season are not the best way to gain traction with farmers.