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MPCA seeks comments on stricter permit for Thief River Falls dairy

THIEF RIVER FALLS - The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency wants a Thief River Falls feedlot already deemed a public health hazard to take further steps to curb its odors.

The MPCA has proposed revoking Excel Dairy's operating permit and reissuing a new one with stricter guidelines. The agency will accept comments on the plan until April 3.

The proposal is the latest of several regulatory and legal actions taken by federal, state and local government bodies to reduce the dairy's emissions of hydrogen sulfide, a rotten-egg-smelling gas produced by animal waste.

"Over the past several months, the Facility has violated Minnesota's hydrogen sulfide standards hundreds of times," states an MPCA public notice released last week.

Gaylen Reetz, director of the MPCA's regional division, said the agency is seeking to lower the dairy's emissions by making the facility change the way it handles manure.

The facility, with some 1,500 animals, stores manure in a series of three clay-lined basins. The manure is moved from basin to basin as it breaks down over time, much like a system of wastewater lagoons.

Reetz said the new permit would require the first basin to be sealed with a layer of straw; the second basin would have an impermeable synthetic seal and allow for the collection and flaring of gases; and the third basin would have a permeable seal, letting some gases escape.

"The combination of those (basin seals) we believe will minimize the odor from the facility and should eliminate the exceedances of the air quality standards," he said.

The current permit requires a seal on the first basin, but not the second and third, Reetz said.

The company has removed all cattle from the dairy -- a condition of the MPCA's plan, according to the agency's public notice.

The dairy's spokespeople have blamed the odors on state requirements to clean out lagoons of manure that accumulated for years under previous owners of the farm.

Phone messages left at Prairie Ridge Management, a Veblen, S.D., company that owns the dairy, were not returned Wednesday.

In September, health officials having monitored air quality at the dairy concluded that it posed a public threat.

"When air levels get to the 30 to 100 parts per illion (of hydrogen sulfide) ... there's often a lot of unhappiness in communities," said Rita Messing, a toxicologist with the state health department, who added that evidence showed the dairy reached those levels.

People who live near the dairy have complained of nausea, headaches, itchy eyes, breathing troubles and sore throats, Messing said.

At one point last summer, a state health official advised residents to evacuate their homes temporarily because of dangerously high levels of hydrogen sulfide.

The MPCA Citizen's Board will likely consider comments on the dairy's permit April 28 in St. Paul, Reetz said.