Tom Emmer wants to send a fruit basket to Rick Millner. He's the kind of job creator that Tom Emmer likes. His large dairy operation has been oppressed by busybody regulators who seem to care more about water and air quality than the jobs and economic growth he creates. He should be Emmer's poster child for the impact of overzealous regulation. After all, his dairy operation is the only one in recent memory to have its permit revoked by the job hating bureaucrats at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. But you won't hear his name invoked by Emmer, because Rick Millner was the CEO of Excel Dairy.
Excel was a 1,600 head dairy operation near Thief River Falls owned and operated by the Dairy Dozen, a South Dakota company. That picture at the top? That's one of the three manure lagoons at Excel. Almost from the moment it opened, the stench of manure overpowered neighbors, who complained to the MPCA. But it wasn't simply an odor problem. Excel's manure pits were emitting hydrogen sulfide gas, a neurotoxin that has killed hundreds of people. According to Excel's permit, emissions of hydrogen sulfide were limited to 30 parts per billion. Neighbors who did their own air quality tests found levels as high as 1000 parts per billion, so high that in Summer 2008 the Minnesota Department of Health told them to evacuate. They lived a nightmare existence of being forced out of their homes or choosing to live with air quality so bad that short-term health effects were happening and long-term health problems were possible according to state toxicologist Rita Messing. You didn't need to tell the neighbors that the health impacts were real. They'd been reporting nausea, headaches, shortness of breath and exhaustion for years. But why not listen to one of them describe their struggle?
The pattern of violations at Excel Dairy went back as far as 2005, when they exceeded the permitted size of their herd and used unapproved methods to treat manure. They ignored order after order from the MPCA. It took the MPCA years to finally get around to actually checking the air quality downwind of Excel. Why? They only have five air quality monitoring devices for 1,000 feedlots. When you hear Mark Dayton refer to the MPCA as the Minnesota Pollution Cooperation Agency, think of Excel as an example par excellence of how ineffective it's been under Tim Pawlenty. At least the MPCA finally did what needed to be done this Spring and refused to issue a new operating permit for Excel. It only took five years of repeated permit violations.
But according to Tom Emmer, the problem is over-regulation. The Emmer plan? "[M]ove the regulatory structure for agriculture out of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and back to the Department of Agriculture." Oh, and to review regulations to look for examples of where "Minnesota’s standards [are] higher than federal standards."
As ridiculously drawn out as MPCA's response was, it's likely that if the Department of Agriculture had been in charge, nothing would have been done. How much emphasis on agricultural air quality enforcement do you think there would be in an Emmer regime? Even if they wanted to enforce air quality, they wouldn't have the expertise.
According to the Citizens League, livestock agriculture is "minimally regulated" by the federal government. Minnesota has over 30,000 registered animal feedlots. Only 1,100 of these are subject to federal permits, and of those, only 40 have individual federal permits. The state, and by delegation, 55 counties, do the vast majority of monitoring to ensure that these feedlots don't pollute the water and air. And this is a crucial task, as the collective (ahem) output of these operations is the equivalent of the waste produced by 50 million people. Relying solely on the federal standards would mean that 29,000 or so feedlots would be unregulated.
Worse still for the neighbors of Excel Dairy, the MPCA's foot dragging was better than they could have expected from the federal government. While the Excel situation was dragging on, the EPA was busy exempting air pollution caused by manure from reporting requirements. In other words, the federal standards wouldn't have required Excel to even report that their 33 million gallon manure pits were exceeding their permitted air emissions.
But back to that fruit basket. Here's Emmer's conclusion:
Farmers are the state’s first and best environmentalists because they depend on the land for their livelihood – the farm is their 401K. It’s time we offer a fruit basket instead of a rule book to any business wanting to grow and expand.The vast majority of farmers do their very best to protect the environment and public health. And while it can be onerous to comply with regulations, bad actors like Excel demonstrate the need for fair and vigorous enforcement when they are violated.
Reviewing regulations to see how they can be more clearly explained and evenly enforced? Everyone supports that. But when Tom Emmer says he'd throw away the rule book, remember the story of Excel Dairy, since there will be more stories like that if he wins.
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(Note: On longer form posts like this one, I'll be using my new Posterous blog to organize and present the citations. Want to see? Click here to go to the "Works Cited: Excel Dairy" page.)
(Image Credit: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, via MPR)