fbpx From inkling to action: MCEA's path to combatting nitrogen pollution in drinking water | Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy
Jun 26, 2024

From inkling to action: MCEA's path to combatting nitrogen pollution in drinking water

By Sarah Horner, MCEA Communications Director

When Jeff Broberg first told MCEA’s Leigh Currie and Carly Griffith about the alarming nitrate contamination levels showing up in private wells throughout his home region in Southeastern Minnesota, they were worried there wasn’t much they could do. 

Distinct from municipal drinking water supplies governed by state laws and policies, private well owners are often on their own when it comes to protecting their drinking water. Without these state laws to use as leverage, there was no clear path forward to help address the pollution. 

But the startling data and concerns of people like Broberg and his neighbors prompted Currie and Griffith to keep brainstorming. Currie - MCEA’s Director of Strategic Litigation - began combing through case law to see if anything might apply. She eventually found a feedlot case out of Washington State that referenced an order issued by the Environmental Protection Agency under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. 

Runoff from feedlots is a primary source of nitrate contamination in drinking water, so this pointed to a possible way to address the pollution. Currie was intrigued, but not sure if this could apply because, similar to state water laws, the Safe Drinking Water Act typically only covers municipal drinking water supplies. But she kept digging and discovered that there was an emergency provision in the Safe Drinking Water Act that applied to all sources of underground drinking water, including private wells. If anything was an emergency, it was this drinking water crisis in the karst region. Currie saw an opening for Minnesota’s well owners, but it started closing when she realized the EPA had hardly used it over the years. 

Then she came across updated guidance on the provision that the EPA issued in 2018 following Flint, Michigan’s drinking water crisis. The guidance said the emergency provision can and should be used more liberally to protect all drinking water, including any underground water supply that might someday be used for public consumption. 

“That’s when the lightbulb went off,” Currie said. “It essentially said the EPA doesn’t have to wait until people are dying to do something. If you have credible information showing contamination of a potential drinking water supply, the EPA can step in now to protect public health.”



That’s exactly what MCEA asked the federal agency to do in April of 2023. Laying out the scope and breadth of the crisis, an MCEA-led coalition of environmental groups petitioned the EPA. We asked the federal agency to use its emergency authority to intervene on behalf of some 380,000 Minnesotans living in our state’s sensitive karst region, where runoff from manure and commercial fertilizer spread on agricultural fields causes nitrate levels to routinely climb above federal and state limits. 

Nitrate poisoning has been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, and birth defects and low birth weight in infants. More than 80,000 residents in the area rely on private wells for their water, which are at the gravest risk for contamination. And while the karst region is particularly sensitive, nitrate contamination is a problem in other areas of Minnesota as well, including townships across the Central Sands region. 

Currie and Griffith kept their expectations tempered. While the new guidance provided a path, there was no guarantee EPA would even acknowledge our request.



But a few months later, it did. In a big way. The EPA sent a letter to the MPCA, Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) demanding the agencies take immediate steps to provide safe drinking water alternatives to affected residents and develop a long-term plan to reduce nitrate pollution. 

“I remember just sitting at my desk and thinking, ‘Wow, something we did just made a big difference,’” Currie recalled. “Sometimes in this job it can feel like it’s hard to move the needle on certain issues, so to have this kind of response so quickly was really exciting.” 

The EPA’s letter triggered a cascade of long-overdue attention and activity in the state. MCEA staff were invited to meet with legislative subcommittees and speak to worried residents at town halls in Southeastern Minnesota. The Winona Clean Water Coalition was formed as a local advocate for the issue. Environmental groups from Iowa started calling for advice about how to push for similar reforms across the border. And then the Legislative session began. 

“This was one of the big issues of the session. Everybody was talking about nitrate contamination,” said MCEA’s Chief Strategic Officer Aaron Klemz, who advocated for MCEA during the 2024 session. 

The session yielded unprecedented action on the EPA’s top priority: ensuring affected residents have safe drinking water. Legislators allocated nearly $13 million to help address the problem. While a long term funding source is still needed, it’s a solid down payment to start the work. The legislature also passed a manure management grant program that MCEA championed. The grant will hopefully incentivize the thousands of feedlot operators in Minnesota that don’t meet the threshold for permitting to build bigger storage facilities for their excess manure. Many now spray it on fields during late fall and winter when there are no plants that need it because they don’t have adequate storage space. 

The problem is exacerbated by the abundance of drain tile under agricultural fields, which dramatically accelerates the pace of runoff.  



Solutions to the longer-term and much thornier problem of actually curbing the agricultural practices driving the problem are yet to come. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency just released a new draft permit for the state’s largest feedlots - known as CAFOS – that, if eventually approved, would prohibit winter applications and place conditions on fall spraying in sensitive geographical areas like Southeastern Minnesota. 

Then this fall, for the first time in two decades, the state will begin a new rule-making process that will impact feedlots of all sizes. 

“These rules have been a political hot potato for over 20 years so the fact that they’ve agreed to open them up and consider changes is huge,” Currie said. “It presents a major opportunity to make a real difference on this.” 

MCEA will participate in both. We plan to submit a detailed comment on MPCA’s new draft permit, co-signing the changes it’s recommending and urging the agency to do more, like ban winter spreading for all large feedlots, not just those in vulnerable areas. 

We will also be actively engaged when the rule-making revision process starts this fall. It’s expected to last over a year, but while long administrative processes awash in details often lose the attention of other groups, it’s where MCEA’s experts and lawyers shine. 

"The stakes are too high to continue to let this issue go unaddressed,” Currie said. “We'll keep pushing as long as we need to for people like Jeff and his neighbors. Everybody deserves to have clean drinking water, no matter where you live in Minnesota."



MCEA will be asking supporters to endorse the comment we’re submitting to the MPCA on its proposed changes to the CAFO permit. Stay tuned for an email asking you to sign on.