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'Be prepared': Tribal leaders, residents voice environmental concerns during public hearing for Devils Lake hog farm project

Pete Hannebutt of the North Dakota Farm Bureau speaks Wednesday at Spirit Lake Casino and Resort about a hog farm proposed near Devils Lake. More than 200 people attended the public hearing, with many residents opposing the project. (April Baumgarten/Grand Forks Herald)1 / 2
Josh Tweeton, director of the Spirit Lake Tribal Environmental Protection Administration, speaks Wednesday against proposed a hog farm near Devils Lake. (April Baumgarten/Grand Forks Herald)2 / 2

ST. MICHAEL, N.D.—A proposed hog farm near Devils Lake may be outside of the Spirit Lake Nation, but a tribal leader says it threatens water and the environment inside the tribe's boundaries.

"Should this happen, I suggest to the state of North Dakota, the North Dakota Department of Health, be prepared," Tribe Vice Chair Douglas Yankton Sr. said of the state approving the Grand Prairie Agriculture hog farm.

Yankton was one of more than 400 people who attended public hearings Wednesday at the Spirit Lake Casino and Resort near St. Michael and the Lake Region State College in Devils Lake. Some spoke in support of the farm that could house up to 2,499 hogs, but it appeared opposition outnumbered advocates. The crowd sometimes applauded for speakers who spoke against the proposed facility, including Yankton, who spoke at the Spirit Lake hearing.

"By no means are we against the farming industry," he said, making it clear he and others were against the location of the facility.

The crowd in Devils Lake interrupted speakers as they took the podium with applause and comments. At least one person was escorted from the LRSC auditorium during the hearing.

"Is this pig farm wanted here?" Mary Senger of Devils Lake asked before a large number of the Devils Lake crowd yelled, "No!"

The farm would be about 10 miles west of the city of Devils Lake and about a half-mile away from the shore of the lake that shares the city's name.

The North Dakota Department of Health said it plans to issue the permit for the farm that could produce thousands of piglets each year. Supporters like Pete Hannebut, public policy director for the North Dakota Farm Bureau, said the owners of the facility would be responsible for protecting the environment, adding it could be an opportunity for young farmers to get into the industry.

"It would be a shame to tell these young entrepreneurs they have no place in a rural setting," he said.

Scott Ressler, environmental services director for the North Dakota Stockmen's Association, encouraged the Health Department to use science and facts to make its decision, not emotions.

Seth Bacon of the North Dakota Pork Council echoed Ressler's comments, adding that officials should not base their decision on "a few people's loud opinions, something they saw on the internet or vendettas."

Through a representative, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said he supported the approval of the farm, adding that it could add value to crops used to feed hogs.

"North Dakota needs more animal agriculture," Goehring said in his statement. "I support animal agriculture that is environmentally sound."

But others warned the facility could leak waste into Devils Lake, which residents in the area use as a source of water. The hogs are estimated to produce up to 1.4 million gallons of manure per year, which will be stored in holding tanks year-round and applied to hundreds of acres of surrounding cropland.

It's not a matter of if that will happen, but rather when, said Josh Tweeton, director of the Spirit Lake Environmental Protection Agency.

"As a tribe, we feel this is an environmental injustice," he said. "There are no positive outcomes, only negative impacts such as pollution and health issues."

Buffalo, N.D., resident Lianne Stout also warned of the environmental impact to residents around the region, recalling the opposition against a similar hog farm that was proposed near her hometown.

"It is the beginning of the end for North Dakota," said Liane Stout of Buffalo, N.D., adding this is a state problem, not just a Devils Lake issue.

Some questioned how the farm will help the community more than harming it, while others claimed it would lower property value. Residents also criticized the farm because it is planned to be built near a cemetery.

Evan Miller of Minnewaukan, N.D., said he moved from Cando, N.D., because a nearby hog farm produced unwanted smells.

"I moved down here to get away from that, and I don't think I should have to deal with that again," he said.

The Spirit Lake Tribe passed a resolution Aug. 30 asking the Health Department to deny the hog farm application. Yankton said his words warning the state to be prepared referred to the environmental damage the farm could cause.

He also showed concern for the hogs to be raised at the site.

"It is not a farm. It is a confinement," he said. "It's a confinement of animals that are treated poorly."

He said he was impressed by how many people showed up to oppose the farm, stating residents from all walks of life attended out of concern for their livelihoods.

He declined to say whether the approval of the farm would cause civil unrest on the Spirit Lake Nation, but the tribe would use legal means to fight the facility.

The Health Department will accept written comments through Sept. 28.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

(701) 780-1248
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