fbpx Press release: Winona County residents win legal case to protect drinking water from pollution from large industrial feedlot | Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy
Nov 22, 2023

Press release: Winona County residents win legal case to protect drinking water from pollution from large industrial feedlot

green hexagon m c e a logo with pine tree

Winona County residents win legal case to protect drinking water from pollution from large industrial feedlot

DATE: 11/21//23   CONTACT: Sarah Horner, MCEA, shorner@mncenter.org, 612-868-3024


St. Paul, Minnesota – A Minnesota court on Tuesday upheld Winona County’s ability to limit the size of large animal feedlots operating within its borders in order to protect residents’ drinking water from affiliated nitrate pollution due to its vulnerable karst geology. 

The ruling demonstrates that the recent Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) decision to require state agencies to take immediate steps to remedy the nitrate-contaminated drinking water crisis is consistent with local ordinances limiting the size of industrial agricultural practices. According to the EPA, nearly ten thousand  residents in southeastern Minnesota have well water above the safe level for nitrates. 

In its opinion, the Winona County District Court affirmed the Winona County Board of Adjustment’s decision to deny a variance request from the area’s largest feedlot - Daley Farm. The farm’s request aimed to circumvent the county’s feedlot size restriction ordinance to allow the farm to grow to quadruple the size of any other farm permitted in the County.

If granted, Daley Farm, located in Lewiston, would have created more than 46 million gallons of manure and wastewater annually that would have needed to be spread on local farmland. That’s more than twice the waste produced by the entire human population of Rochester.  Due to the area’s karst topography, land-applied fertilizer and manure seep largely uninterrupted into the groundwater, which is already well above nitrate-levels deemed safe in Winona County.  This groundwater is the only source of drinking water for much of the County. 

Defenders of Drinking Water, a group of Winona County residents whose water stood to be impacted by the expansion, intervened in the ongoing court battle last January. The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) represented the residents in the case. 

"Every Winona County resident deserves clean and safe drinking water,” said Amy Cordry, a member of Defenders of Drinking Water who applauded Tuesday’s decision. “Neither agriculture nor citizens can be allowed to ignore the rules the County put in place to protect its environment  and residents when our waters are already polluted with unsafe levels of nitrate.

“Today, the Court affirmed local control, and Winona County’s ability to say no to large mega-feedlots that dwarf other farms in the community and threaten the community’s drinking water,” stated Amelia Vohs, staff attorney at MCEA. “Winona County used their authority to thoughtfully set policies to balance the growth of agriculture with protection of the community’s sensitive drinking water resources, and the Court affirmed that when Daley Farm proposed to violate this policy, it was right for the County to say no.”  

Winona County adopted its animal cap ordinance in 1998 to balance the interests of farmers with the unique risks industrial agricultural practices pose to groundwater within the region’s unusual karst topography. Groundwater is the area’s main source of drinking water for residents, whether they use city drinking water or have a private well. That means that large feedlots such as Daley Farm are particularly hazardous in Winona County because the nitrate from the liquid manure used on farm fields is quickly absorbed into the groundwater below the surface. To make matters worse, nitrate levels are already well above recommended levels in Winona County.  

Nitrate contaminated drinking water is dangerous as nitrate pollution can be toxic and in some cases fatal for infants. Elevated levels of nitrate are also linked to health conditions including colon cancer, bladder cancer, and birth defects. 

Given the severity of the problem in the karst region, MCEA and ten other environmental organizations filed a petition to the EPA last April asking the federal agency to use its emergency authority to intervene in the crisis because the state response to date has proven inadequate. The EPA sent a letter to state agencies earlier this month requiring them to notify area residents of the risks and provide safe drinking water to those whose private wells exceeded safe limits. The EPA also ordered the agencies to develop a long-term plan to address the root causes of the area’s pervasive nitrate-pollution.  

MCEA won a case at the Minnesota Court of Appeals involving Daley Farm and its planned expansion in October 2019 after the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency approved permits for the project without considering the impacts the pollution it would create would have on the climate crisis. 

Questions about today’s decision can be addressed to Sarah Horner at the contact information listed at the top of this release.