Becker County commissioners try to run out the clock on White Earth involvement in pig feedlot
The tribe is especially concerned about land application of manure that it fears could lead to high phosphorus levels in the soil and high nitrate levels in the water — threatening wild rice, mussels and fish, and adding to existing E. coli contamination.
DETROIT LAKES — If the proposal for a pig feedlot in Spring Creek Township was a football game, you could say the Becker County Board scrambled to avoid a blitz by the White Earth Legal Department on Tuesday.
Like a loose ball on the one-yard line, the township and the project applicants — local farmers Eric and Erica Zurn — have been fighting over the details of a road maintenance agreement, an agreement that was required by the county board when it approved the original conditional use permit for the feedlot.
The road agreement was left up to the two parties to work out, and could have made either the township, or the feedlot owners — or some combination of the two — responsible for all repairs and maintenance on 350th Street leading to the feedlot site.
That seemed to put the ball in the township’s hands, since it had final say over the road agreement. So when the Zurns were not able to come to an arrangement with the township, feedlot supporters on the county board tried an end-around.
They presented two road agreements for commissioner consideration, but the play was broken up when it came to light that neither road agreement had actually been approved by the township board, and that Spring Creek township supervisors had been blindsided by the action.
The township, it should be said, opposed the feedlot from the start, but did not have any ordinance in place to stop it.
The county also lacked an ordinance to cover large confined feedlots, like the one planned for Spring Creek Township, which is for 999 “animal-units.” That’s just under the 1,000 animal-unit threshold requiring an environmental assessment worksheet by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which regulates all feedlots in Becker County.
A pig under 300 pounds only counts as about a third of one “animal unit,” so the proposed feedlot will actually hold about 3,000 young pigs and breeding sows.
At any rate, the county approved the project on Sept. 6, but later slapped a moratorium on future requests until it can update its ordinance governing feedlots.
Meanwhile, the Zurns despaired of getting a favorable road agreement, and went to the county planning commission to amend their conditional use permit and remove the requirement for a road agreement.
Spring CreekTownship objected, but the planning commission gave the request the thumbs up – voting to ditch the road agreement, but requiring that the Zurns maintain the road during construction, and pay for any damage caused by heavy equipment.
That amended conditional use permit went back to the county board on Tuesday for final approval.
That’s where the White Earth Legal Department comes in.
During the open forum part of the county board meeting, White Earth Environmental Counsel Jamie Konopacky argued that the amended conditional use permit is actually a new CUP, and should be treated as such.
Because the feedlot is within White Earth boundaries, the county and state must bow to federal law, so “it was an error for the county to issue the conditional use permit (for a confined animal feedlot) that directly threatens tribal member health and welfare and tribal waters and other natural resources,” Konopacky said in a letter to the county.
Becker County, she said, should have consulted with the tribe and included conditions to meet its concerns — such as avoiding land application of manure that could lead to high phosphorus levels in the soil and high nitrate levels in the water. That in turn, she said, threatens wild rice, mussels and fish, and contributes to E. coli contamination.
The tribe also wants comprehensive water monitoring networks beneath confined animal feedlots and anywhere manure is applied to the land, which is a common way to dispose of feedlot manure.
In fact, getting access to that feedlot manure for use as fertilizer on their farmland in the area was one of the main reasons the Zurns bought into the feedlot project.
At any rate, White Earth involvement seemed to spur the county board into action. At the suggestion of Commissioner Barry Nelson, it tabled the request for an amended conditional use permit until Dec. 13, and several commissioners strongly encouraged the two parties to sign the final road agreement worked out by attorneys from both sides.
That way, the original conditional use permit would take effect, and the county would avoid any pitfalls that came from approving the amended permit.
“Once they both sign this agreement, it’s over, it’s approved,” Nelson said.
Board Chairman Larry Knutson denied a request from the tribal environmental attorney to speak again shortly before the board vote.
“Sorry, testimony is closed,” he told her.
The Zurns said they had already signed the final road agreement, but Spring Creek Township supervisors said they will have to wait to take action until their regular meeting later this month.