MPCA decision on Daley Farms expansion on hold as agency sorts through hundreds of comments
After receiving hundreds of public comments in response to the Daley Farms proposed feedlot expansion in Lewiston, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has postponed its decision on whether it will require more study until just after the new year.
Daley Farms, the largest feedlot in Winona County, has proposed adding 3,693 animal units to its dairy operation following a four-year MPCA permitting process that opened to public comment in early October.
Since the public comment period closed on Nov. 15, the MPCA has received more than 600 comments in regard to the expansion.
Cathy Rofshus of the MPCA said the high volume of responses is typical for feedlot expansions of this size. Earlier this year, a Fillmore County feedlot expansion garnered more than 770 comments.
She said in both cases, the large volume of comments meant the agency needed more time to review and respond before making a decision. The number of comments could have been lower had state ag groups managed to prevent the MPCA from extending the public comment period an extra 15 days. Their request for an injunction was denied by a Ramsey County District Court judge in November.
Of the 618 comments collected by the MPCA, the overwhelming majority expressed concern with the Daley Farms expansion. In a press release last week, the Land Stewardship Project claimed more than 500 of those comments made were in opposition of the expansion or called on the MPCA to require a more intensive environmental impact statement before issuing a permit.
However, a Winona Daily News review of the comments revealed that roughly three-quarters came from outside of Winona County and more than a third were form letters. Rofshus said while the large volume of comments was expected, the number of them received from outside the region was unusual, but not unheard of for large projects.
“Typically, it’s people who live and work around the proposed site,” she said, adding regardless of where the comment originated, the MPCA still is required to read and respond to all comments.
Still, a majority of the comments from Winona County residents — about 75 percent — were against the expansion.
While unfazed by the number of comments, Ben Daley, whose family has run the dairy for more than a century, expressed surprise at the number of comments made by people living outside of Winona County.
“I was just completely shocked and surprised that there were so many of them from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area,” Daley said. “This is a local issue.”
Approximately a quarter of the comments came from people living in the Twin Cities metro area.
Despite the large number of negative comments, Daley said he and his family aren’t too concerned. He argued that his supporters showed up in force during the MPCA’s public informational meeting in Lewiston on Oct. 16.
In their comments, the farm’s defenders focused on the Daley’s track record and century-long involvement in the community as evidence of the family’s commitment and vested interest in protecting the environment.
“The Daleys have a long tradition of doing what is right and I have complete confidence that they will continue doing so moving forward with the expansion,” wrote Lewiston business owner Paul Doran.
Cole Theede, also of Lewiston, echoed Doran.
“Daley Farms has been a fixture in the Lewiston community for nearly 160 years. Their philanthropy and strong support of our community will continue to help Lewiston thrive,” he wrote.
Theede argued that the Daleys have become the “gold standard” among area farmers when it comes to sustainability and conservation practices.
“I’ve gotten to know the next generation considerably well and they are continually searching for new ways to maximize their operations, sustainability, and minimizing their environmental impact,” he wrote.
Of the comments by Winona County residents in opposition to the expansion, the majority pointed to the environmental impact as a justification for requiring the more rigorous impact statement.
For Stan Smith, who lives about a mile from the Daley Farm, the threat to well water isn’t worth the risk.
“My well water is already over acceptable limits,” he wrote.
Water quality was a concern found in most of the comments made in opposition to the expansion, including those of Jennifer Rupprecht, whose family runs a 275-acre organic beef and crop farm about two miles from Daley Farms.
“I believe the excessive volume of manure and excessive water usage by an expanded Daley Farm have the potential to harm the water supply for the community of Lewiston and the surrounding area,” she wrote. “The Daleys’ proposed expansion certainly has potential for significant environmental impacts and should definitely require an environmental impact statement.”
According to Rofshus, when it comes to water quality, those living in rural Winona County have reason to be concerned about contamination.
She said a large number of wells in southeastern Minnesota are already contaminated by nitrates and bacteria, a situation that isn’t helped by Winona County’s unique geography.
Rofshus said Winona County’s karst landscape — characterized by a thin layer of soil covering porous bedrock underneath — makes groundwater particularly vulnerable to contamination.
Because of this, the MPCA often requires farmers to take steps to mitigate these risks in order to maintain their permit.
Daley said his family is willing to take any steps deemed necessary to protect the environment, including planting cover crops, applying manure in the spring and delaying the spreading of manure in the fall until temperatures fall below 50 degrees.
Whether those steps will even be necessary will be decided on or before Jan. 2, when the MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine will decide whether to grant the permit or require a more in-depth environmental impact statement.
Daley maintains that an EIS would be “death nail” to any plans for expansion. He said completing an impact study could take years and millions of dollars.
“I don’t think there is a farm that would ever go through that,” he said.
However, even if Daley manages to dodge the EIS bullet and is granted a permit, the farm will still need to get permission from the county to proceed.
Here Daley admits he is a little worried.
County ordinances enacted in the 1990s prohibit feedlots in excess of 1,500 animal units. Daley Farms — which at that time was already in excess of the limit — was grandfathered in.
Whether or not the Daleys’ proposed feedlot expansion is even legal was a question that repeatedly appeared in public comments.
“The expansion proposal clearly violates the current Winona County ordinance regarding animals,” Rupprecht wrote.
It remains to be seen whether or not the Daley Farms will need a variance from the County Board of Adjustment or a permitted non-conformity from the Winona County Board.
Daley said he hopes to appear before the Winona County Board of Adjustment on Dec. 20.