The Minnesota Environmental Policy Act requires that governments take a hard look at proposals that could have a significant effect on the environment and complete an environmental study of a proposal’s environmental impact. When a proposal includes a permit to pump a large amount of groundwater, Minnesota law requires that environmental study include an assessment of available water resources. Unfortunately, since different state agencies are frequently responsible for these two parts (the environmental study and the water pumping permit) this required assessment sometimes has been left out of environmental review. This means the public does not get to see any information about how groundwater pumping might affect nearby users and ecosystems before a proposal is approved.
There is a good reason why state law requires assessment of available water resources—overpumping of groundwater can do real harm. Overpumping an aquifer can harm neighbors who rely on their wells for drinking water and even harm rare wetlands. Calcareous fens are the rarest wetland ecosystem in Minnesota (around 200 remain statewide), and Minnesota law protects them from being “filled, drained, or otherwise degraded.” They depend on a constant supply of upwelling groundwater, and they can be permanently destroyed if groundwater levels drop. So when Minnesota agencies rush an environmental study of a proposal and don’t look at the impact on groundwater, they can put calcareous fens or other resources at risk.
"Here in Minnesota, a little bit over 200 of them are officially protected by law, and they're protected by law because they are so rare and so unique. Two hundred sounds like, ‘Great, we have a lot!’ But then when you look at the land base of the state, I mean — it's a little tiny bit, it's less than four square miles, for the entire state, of this type of wetland." - Minnesota DNR ecologist Becky Marty, quoted by Minnesota Public Radio News
Barrick Farms’ proposal to build a 16,000+ hog feedlot in Norman County would require a high-capacity well that would pump over 15 million gallons of groundwater every year. The Barrick Farms proposal is within two miles of several rare calcareous fens, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) found in its preliminary assessment that the fens could be damaged if nearby wells affect water levels.
MCEA is appealing the decision to approve the environmental review of the Barrick Farms proposal and issue permits because the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has not followed Minnesota law, which put the nearby rare wetlands at risk. This is not the first time this has happened, and MCEA believes that it’s time for the Minnesota courts to step in and instruct Minnesota agencies to follow state laws that are designed to protect rare wetlands and neighboring groundwater users.
“Minnesota law is clear that calcareous fens are protected and that any proposal that damages these rare wetlands should not be allowed. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency admitted it didn’t have the test results needed to ensure that fens near the Barrick Farms proposed feedlot will be protected, but it issued a permit anyway.”
Joy Anderson, Senior Staff Attorney at MCEA, November 2020
Court of Appeals issues decision on Barrick Farms appeal
The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that MPCA does not need to reopen environmental review to study the effects of Barrick Farms’ well on calcareous fens. A DNR analysis issued during the appeal shows that the Barrick Farms project is unlikely to harm the nearby calcareous fens, but this might not be the case for the next large CAFO project under environmental review.
MCEA argues the case before the Minnesota Court of Appeals
MCEA tells the court that MPCA must reopen environmental review and properly study the feedlot’s effects on the calcareous fens. The court must make a decision by the end of August.
Minnesota Court of Appeals schedules oral arguments in Barrick Farms appeal
Once briefing the case is done, the Court of Appeals will schedule oral arguments for some time in Summer 2021.
Barrick Farms’ attorneys make two attempts to dismiss the case
Both attempts are dismissed by the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
MCEA files appeal of permits and environmental study for Barrick Farms proposal
Permits issued and environmental study approved by MPCA
MPCA issues Barrick Farms a Clean Water Act permit and approves the environmental study without the required assessment of available water resources.
MPCA denies 2nd extension of public comment period
After being informed that the aquifer test would not be completed in time to submit comments, MCEA requests a second extension to the public comment period. MPCA denies this extension. MCEA files comments on the environmental study arguing that since the proposal could harm the calcareous fens, MPCA should order a full environmental impact statement.
MPCA extends public comment period after MCEA request
MCEA and over 300 Minnesotans request a 30-day extension for the comment period on the environmental assessment worksheet to allow an aquifer test assessing the available water resources to be completed. MPCA grants the extension.
MPCA publishes environmental assessment worksheet for the Barrick Farms proposal
The environmental study identifies the risk to nearby calcareous fens but does not contain an assessment of available water resources required by Minnesota law.