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Don Davis, Forum News Service, Published January 22 2010

Cleanup delay at Thief River Falls dairy site draws protest

ST. PAUL – Children fussed. Parents cried. Senators were outraged. Bureaucrats explained.

“We have been pushed into the living conditions of a Third World country,” Jeff Brouse told a state Senate Health Committee hearing about a three-year effort to clean up a rural Thief River Falls dairy operation.

Residents from near Excel Dairy drove to St. Paul on Thursday to describe their plight. And senators were shocked to hear that unhealthy levels of manure fumes have surrounded their homes hundreds of times since spring 2007 despite two state agencies’ attempts to correct the situation.

Brouse and his neighbors described an odor so pungent it goes beyond a normal manure smell. Health Department officials told of hydrogen sulfide levels so high they not only go beyond their meters’ capacities, they are so high that doctors do not know how they might affect people.

Health officials have advised residents near the dairy along U.S. 59 in northwest Minnesota’s Marshall County to evacuate their homes several times.

Six-year-old Brooke Fredrickson told senators that it is not fair that on nice, sunny days she often is forced to play inside her home because of the smell and accompanying health danger. She needs to go inside “when my eyes get crusty.”

Looking at her little brother, Jake, she added: “I am his big sister, and I need to protect him.”

“We are trying to keep our kids healthy,” said Rachel Fredrickson, but the situation is out of their control.

Excel Dairy was invited to testify in front of Sen. John Marty’s committee, but did not appear. The company appealed a Marshall County court order requiring it to clean up its dairy operations, with a state Appeals Court hearing set for March 4.

In the meantime, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency announced it plans to deny a new permit for the dairy, although a monthlong public input period will precede the agency’s final decision.

Cows were removed from the dairy after an agency order a year ago. Excel has not fulfilled another part of the order to clean up three manure lagoons that still emit gases, Assistant Attorney General Jeff Grell said.

The dairy also left a pile of feed on the property, in defiance of the state, he said, and rats and other animals have moved in.

The facility’s manure-storage system consists of three clay-lined basins to hold 33 million gallons of waste flushed from barns.

Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said local officials have changed the way they do business since the Excel controversy begin. The county has implemented a planning and zoning process.

Rep. Dave Olin, DFL-Thief River Falls, complained that the dairy owner, which also has facilities elsewhere in Minnesota as well as North Dakota and South Dakota, is able to use state law to “stonewall.”

Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.