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The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) released its decision last week on whether to permit Daley Farms, one of the largest dairies in the state, to expand from 1,500 to 4,000 cows. Despite concerns about climate change and water quality impacts of industrial feedlots, the agency decided to award Daley Farms a permit to expand. The agency denied the need for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), an in-depth environmental study that is triggered when there is the “potential for significant environmental effects.”

The MPCA initially reviewed and approved the expansion in 2018. However, residents of Winona County (where Daley Farms is located) and state organizations like the Land Stewardship Project and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) raised objections to the project. The groups filed a legal challenge on the grounds that the MPCA had neglected to account for the climate impacts of the expansion. Last fall, the Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed and required the MPCA to consider the proposed expansion’s climate impact.

This January, the MPCA released an initial assessment of the climate impact of the dairy. A comment period followed, and IATP submitted comments criticizing the MPCA for not fully capturing the proposed expansion’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and inadequately accounting for alternative farming practices that can protect the climate. The comment period resulted in 550 public comments, many of which opposed the expansion. Regardless, MPCA determined that the expansion could proceed without an EIS.

The MPCA’s decision happened largely because the methodology they used to calculate the project’s emissions in their initial assessment was too narrow. The state found the Daley Farms expansion would produce only 34,400 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year, but they only considered emissions from enteric fermentation, manure storage and manure land application. Their calculus excluded energy use for heating, cooling and ventilation of buildings; soil organic carbon balance in pasture versus cropland for feed grains; and the impacts of potential manure overapplication to surrounding acreages.

The MPCA denied the need for an EIS, claiming that such a study is typically only triggered if GHG emissions from a project exceed 100,000 tons per year. However, MCEA did an independent and more comprehensive calculation of GHG emissions from the project and found that the Daley Farms expansion would produce 102,248 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year.

Still, the 100,000 tons per year threshold is arbitrary. There are no Minnesota or National Ambient Air Quality Standards for GHGs nor Minnesota or federal thresholds to determine an individual project’s impact on climate change. This lack of standards is concerning. Fortunately, the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB) is currently undergoing a process to integrate climate impacts into all future Environmental Reviews. Their methodology must be rigorous and they should define reasonable standards and thresholds to trigger an EIS. If done well, the EQB process could result in better permitting decisions in the future.

There are multiple reasons aside from GHG emissions that this expansion should not have been approved. The expansion will generate an estimated 46.2 million gallons of manure annually, which will be land applied to surrounding fields. MPCA purports that this extra manure will offset chemical fertilizer use on those fields. What MPCA does not consider is that according to survey data collected by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, 74% of farmers in Southeastern Minnesota apply commercial fertilizers to their manured fields, and 83% did not know how much nitrogen was in the manure they applied to their fields. It’s almost certain that this massive amount of additional manure will be over-applied to fields, causing both copious nitrous oxide emissions and impairing waterways with nitrates. This is of special concern in Winona County, which is located in the state’s unique karst region and already has impaired surface and groundwaters.

The MPCA acknowledged the severity of water contamination and noted that the permit approval came with conditions that Daley Farms would mitigate groundwater contamination by planting cover crops, using larger setbacks for manure application, and using a higher threshold of agronomic certainty in applying nitrates to fields. However, none of these mitigations are actually required; they’re voluntary measures that Daley Farms may or may not implement.

Daley Farms has a history of non-compliance, raising questions about whether they will undertake voluntary mitigation measures. Daley Farms is ineligible for Minnesota’s General Animal Feedlot Permit because the existing feedlot does not comply with federal water pollution requirements. As a result, Daley has a modified feedlot permit from the state, which says that they will come into compliance with the federal regulations under a schedule of compliance. Daley Farms has already been given too much leeway and should be subject to mandatory mitigation measures rather than the voluntary mitigations outlined in the MPCA’s decision.

There is still one roadblock in Daley Farms’ way: Winona County’s local ordinances. Winona County has an animal unit cap of 1,500; the Daley Farms expansion would exceed this cap by nearly four times. The existing Daley operation already exceeds the county’s cap, but they were grandfathered in when the ordinance was initially passed. At present, the state permit alone will not allow the project to move forward, but a co-owner of Daley Farms said that they will re-start a lawsuit against Winona County for denying them a variance.

Ben Daley recently stated that given the current dairy economy, they may not proceed with the expansion even if they get Winona County’s approval. Dairy prices have plummeted and many farmers are dumping their milk because prices are so far below the cost of production. IATP’s comments to the MPCA emphasized that industrial feedlots and agricultural consolidation have led to massive overproduction of dairy products, pushing out small- to mid-scale dairy farmers using more environmentally friendly practices. After all this effort to get their project approved, the Daleys recognize that such an expansion may not be profitable in the midst of this dairy crisis.

In addition to climate change and water quality concerns, the perspectives of local residents captured in the comments to the MPCA must be taken seriously. People from throughout Winona County and the surrounding area wrote with concerns ranging from nitrate pollution in their waters to public health impacts. As one farmer from the karst region commented, “This proposed CAFO expansion does nothing to protect or improve the health of our environment or of our people. In fact, this proposed project only produces harms to the environment and public health.”