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Neighbors worry big Red River Valley swine farm will cause a big stink

BUFFALO, N.D. -- Roy and Sheila Thompson bought a farmstead out in the country for the fresh air and solitude away from the bustle of the city. They own 7 acres a couple of miles south of Buffalo, a farming hamlet shy of 200 souls about 40 miles ...

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Roy Thompson looks Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016, toward the site of a proposed pig farm 1 mile southwest of his seven-acre farmstead southeast of Buffalo, N.D. He hoped to retire to the home he built there but is now unsure whether he will. (Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service)

BUFFALO, N.D. -- Roy and Sheila Thompson bought a farmstead out in the country for the fresh air and solitude away from the bustle of the city.

They own 7 acres a couple of miles south of Buffalo, a farming hamlet shy of 200 souls about 40 miles west of Fargo, where a post office has operated since 1883.

"Just enough room for a couple horses and some chickens and a couple cats," said Roy Thompson, who with his son built the home and gazebo, a project that took a year working nights and weekends.

Now the Thompsons could have lots of new neighbors -- a 9,000-sow factory farm proposed by Pipestone Holdings' Rolling Green Family Farms, which would be a mile away if given a permit by the North Dakota Department of Health.

All of those hungry hogs will produce lots of manure -- an estimated 6.39 million gallons a year, a quantity that will be stored in concrete pits before being spread as fertilizer on nearby farm fields covering more than 3,300 acres.

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The proposed $15 million farm's three barns will be ventilated to release fumes given off from the manure and urine that will be collected beneath the hogs, creating odor concerns among neighbors.

"It's going to stink," Thompson said. "It's just a dramatic change in the neighborhood."

Kathy Tyler lives half a mile from a large hog operation, Teton Family Farms, near Big Stone City, S.D., 140 miles southeast of Fargo. The farm is permitted for more than 6,000 sows producing 140,000 baby pigs a year.

"It's horrible," she said. "The smell is horrible. You have to close up your house."

The odors are especially bad when the wind comes from the direction of the pig farm, Tyler said. "If the wind is from the southwest, we can't go outside. It's a thicker air and it comes in masses. It can bring tears to your eyes. It's just terrible."

The Tylers have lived on their farmstead for 43 years, and have invested significantly in their property, appraised two years ago at $225,000. But given the odors from the pig farm, Tyler worries about its resale value. "What are the options of selling my house?"

Health concerns mount

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More than foul odors are at issue. Researchers have documented health risks associated with fumes emitted by the large volume of waste generated by industrial hog farms. Some noteworthy studies have come from Iowa, the nation's top pork-producing state.

Emissions including hydrogen sulfide and ammonia monitored near livestock operations were high enough to be harmful to humans, according to a study by the University of Iowa and Iowa State University.

Another study by the University of Iowa concluded that children living on hog farms where antibiotics are added to feed have significantly higher rates of asthma. Similarly, a North Carolina study of more than 58,000 children found a 23 percent higher incidence of asthma symptoms for students attending schools with livestock odors.

Yet another study by the University of Iowa found that residents living within 2 miles of a 4,000-hog confinement farm reported significantly more respiratory problems than other residents.

Ammonia given off by hog waste can drift in the wind and mix with acidic gas to form fine particles that settle to the ground, posing a health risk.

"They cause respiratory distress, they cause reduced lung function," said Joseph Rudek, lead senior scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund.

The health risks from large hog operations are most prevalent in areas where very large numbers of hogs are found in concentrated areas. In North Carolina, for instance, 10 million hogs are concentrated in five counties, he said.

In an area with only one large hog farm, the effects would not be as concentrated, Rudek said. But, he added, the effects would increase if other large hog operations clustered in the area.

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Thompson and his neighbors, in fact, are worried that Rolling Green Family Farms could be the first of more to come.

"Our concern is if this goes through, it's just the beginning," said Liane Stout, who lives in Buffalo.

ND permits don't require air quality

North Dakota officials have been promoting large feedlots as a way to boost the state's livestock industry, significantly smaller than in neighboring states. Lawmakers granted exemptions for swine and dairy farms in the state's ban on corporate farming, a change that is being challenged in the June primary.

Although many of the health concerns involving large livestock operations involve air quality, North Dakota's permitting addresses only water quality standards. As a result, the permit for Rolling Green Family Farms does not require steps to reduce air emissions from manure.

Minnesota, which has a much larger livestock industry, enforces a standard for hydrogen sulfide as part of its state feedlot rules. Those rules were imposed because of health concerns, said Brent Riess, a livestock specialist for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which regulates feedlots.

Minnesota has banned open-air manure pits for all swine units since the late 1990s, meaning that any pit for swine manure must be covered, thus reducing odors and emissions, Riess said.

The permit application for Rolling Green Family Farms calls for confinement barns covering deep concrete pits to trap waste.

Drain tile will be placed beneath the deep pits in the barns to collect contaminated water leaking from the pits in a shallow containment pond.

Alan Dostert, an architect who lives in the area, said specifications for the concrete pits do not require reinforcement bars that are corrosion-resistant. "This is going to deteriorate very rapidly," he said.

Officials in Minnesota and South Dakota said Pipestone Veterinary Services, a company that is affiliated with Pipestone Holdings, has a good compliance record in managing large swine operations.

"I think this is a very large corporation," said Jeff Bathke, director of planning and zoning for South Dakota's Davison County, which includes Mitchell. "They're great to deal with. They've been very responsive."

Still, Bathke said, the county has received odor complaints stemming from Jackrabbit Family Farms, a large hog operation managed by Pipestone Veterinary Services. Davison County has 20 to 30 large swine farms, and rural residents know that odors go along with animal agriculture, he said.

"I haven't had any compliance issues with them," Riess of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said of Pipestone Veterinary Services.

Pipestone Veterinary Services operates 10 permitted swine feedlots in South Dakota, said Kent Woodmansey, feedlot program administrator for the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Pipestone Holdings spokesmen answered questions about the project in a public meeting earlier this month, but did not respond to interview requests Friday.

Health officials have said the application for Rolling Green Family Farms meets state laws, but have scheduled a public hearing March 17 and will accept comments until March 19.

Roy Thompson, meanwhile, said it would be welcome to hear from a neighbor elsewhere with experience who can offer reassurances that large hog farms can be good neighbors.

"I've never met that person," he said, "and I don't think they exist."

Hogs by the numbers

Pipestone Holdings' Rolling Green Family Farms at a glance.

Livestock:

  • 5,312 gestation sows weighing on average 400 pounds
  • 1,344 farrowing sows
  • 1,600 finishing pigs
  • 800 nursery pigs

Waste:

  • 2.14 million gallons of wastewater
  • 6.39 million gallons of manure

Annual waste storage capacity in gestating barn, isolation barn, two farrowing barns:

  • 10.24 million gallons

Source: Permit application with North Dakota Department of Health

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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