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Families take dairy frustration to Capitol

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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 Senate health committee hearing about a three-year effort to clean up a rural Thief River Falls dairy operation.

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

"I feel like I have no control of my life," said Brouse, attempting to hold back tears.

Brouse and his neighbors told of an odor so pungent that 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 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," Rachel Fredrickson said, but the situation is out of their control.

Excel Dairy was invited to testify in front of Sen. John Marty's committee, but was not there. 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 month-long public input period will proceed 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 that 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 diary owner, which also has facilities elsewhere in Minnesota as well as North Dakota and South Dakota, is able to use state law to "stonewall."

Brouse said that health officials should be able to take action, but state officials countered that there is little they can do other than let the case work its way through the courts.

"How can this happen in our country?" asked Ken Fredrickson, who with his wife Rachel and three children filled a witness table normally used by lobbyists and state officials.

Pollution control officials said the rural Thief River Falls residents are in a unique position, with state-dairy negotiations failing.

"This is not a typical dairy," Pollution Control Commissioner Paul Eger said. "This is not a typical situation."

Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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