GARY, Minn. -- Farm developer Paul FitzSimmons had planned to be pouring concrete on a new hog farm in northwest Minnesota weeks ago.

But he’s still waiting on a state permit that will allow him to begin working — and he's not happy with the unexpected delay.

FitzSimmons is developing a planned hog farm that would raise about 16,000 animals, selected for their high-quality genetics, then ship the best of the hogs to Asia as breeding stock.

But the project is caught up in delays related to the amount of groundwater — up to 15 million gallons a year — it would draw from the local aquifer.

While the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency works through the process to determine whether the proposed farm’s impacts on the local environment fall within state regulations, environmental groups and the state Department of Natural Resources are concerned that the farm’s water use could damage a rare, protected wetland ecosystem — a calcareous fen — within 3 miles of the farm.

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In response, the MPCA extended the public comment period on its review of the project — called an environmental assessment worksheet — by a full month.

"We just get hung out to dry here,” FitzSimmons said. “You do everything right. Started four years ago. Make sure you cross all the T's and dot all the I’s, And you get to the very last [part of the project], and all of a sudden, there's a curveball thrown in there that nobody's ever seen before."

FitzSimmons chose this location in Norman County, about an hour north of Moorhead, for its relative remoteness. There are few neighbors nearby, and there are no other hog farms that could potentially spread disease to his breeding stock.

But now, with the prolonged environmental review process, he said he wishes he had sited the farm 40 miles west in North Dakota, where there are fewer environmental regulations.

“The thing that people don't understand is it's a very very long tail,” he said of the delay. “I've got animals that were bred nine months ago, that are supposed to stock this facility. So when everything gets pushed back, I've got animals of very high value that now become no value.”

‘Potentially significant’ aquifer impacts

While the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency oversees the environmental review for a large hog farm like this one, it’s the Department of Natural Resources that’s in charge of the well permit.

The DNR identified what it called “potentially significant resource impacts” from the wells needed to support the farm.

Several varieties of moss are found in calcareous fens. A DNR employee collects some in a fen near Gary, Minn., on Sept. 21. Dan Gunderson | MPR News
Several varieties of moss are found in calcareous fens. A DNR employee collects some in a fen near Gary, Minn., on Sept. 21. Dan Gunderson | MPR News

But data on how those wells might affect the aquifer is not part of the MPCA’s environmental assessment worksheet — and an environmental group is demanding that the MPCA include it.

"A water assessment needs to be in the EAW,” said Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy senior staff attorney Joy Anderson. “And our position is that EAW is not complete and this project cannot move forward because of the fact that information is not in the EAW.”

The MCEA requested an extension of the public comment period on the environmental assessment for this farm in hopes the well testing data would be available for the public to respond to. But the extended comment period closed Sept. 18, before the well test started.

“There is a state law that says a water assessment needs to be in the EAW,” Anderson argues. “And that assessment needs to go in the environmental review. And here that assessment has not been put in the environmental review. It's a direct and very clear, in our opinion, violation of Minnesota state law."

Here’s what the law says: “When an environmental assessment worksheet is required for a proposed action that has the potential to require a groundwater appropriation permit from the commissioner of natural resources, the board shall require that the environmental assessment worksheet include an assessment of the water resources available for appropriation.”

Anderson said MCEA has identified at least three other environmental assessment worksheets for other Minnesota projects in the past two years in which there were concerns about the effects from proposed wells — and in which aquifer tests were not included as part of the environmental review.

The MPCA did not respond to questions about whether the environmental review for the Norman County hog farm needs to include a water use assessment. The agency also declined to comment on the timeline for making a decision on whether this project needs a more detailed environmental review — called an environmental impact statement.

“We’re close to wrapping up this review process with a final decision coming soon,” MPCA communications director Darin Broton said in an email. “The agency’s ultimate goal is to ensure our final permit protects the environment while giving the permitted facility assurance and predictability.”

The well test for the hog farm project is underway, but according to a consulting engineer, it won’t be done until mid-October. The data collected from the test then needs to be analyzed and run through computer models to determine if there might be any negative effect on other wells, or the protected calcareous fens.

Hogs, fen compete for the same groundwater

What's the connection between a well for a hog farm and a rare wetland a few miles away?

It's the groundwater, and how it moves. The aquifer here is under a layer of clay, so the water is pressurized. Drill a well and it bubbles up out of the ground, creating a phenomenon known as a flowing well.

Groundwater can also seep up from underground through cracks in the clay, usually near beach ridges deposited by glacial Lake Agassiz some 10,000 years ago. And that icy cold upwelling water, rich in calcium and magnesium, creates a calcareous fen, one of the rarest of natural communities.

Like most fens in western Minnesota, the plot of land that’s slowing down the hog farm is tiny.

"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," said DNR ecologist Becky Marty. "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 and fen expert Becky Marty identifies a plant adapted to growing in the calcium-rich environment of a calcareous fen on Sept. 21 in western Minnesota. Dan Gunderson | MPR News
Minnesota DNR ecologist and fen expert Becky Marty identifies a plant adapted to growing in the calcium-rich environment of a calcareous fen on Sept. 21 in western Minnesota. Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Groundwater is critical to calcareous fens’ existence. When the groundwater bubbles up, it saturates the peat soils and collects on the surface in small depressions called marl pools. Sometimes the groundwater pressure lifts the soil in mounds, called peat pimples, visible on the landscape.

Kneeling on the thick, spongy peat in one of the fens near the proposed hog farm, Marty points out some of its defining features. "This is one of our calc fen indicators,” she said, pointing to a spiky sedge. “This one's a state threatened plant, right here, carex sterilis."

Calcareous fens are particularly susceptible to changes in the groundwater that feeds them — and DNR hydrologist Michele Walker said this fen could disappear if the groundwater levels change.

"We don't want the fen water levels to change at all,” she said. “They existed here for thousands of years. Some of the fens in the western part of Minnesota are 3,000 years old."

Calcareous fens can also serve as an early warning system of changes in groundwater, or environmental degradation, Marty said.

"We think of calcareous fens as being kind of Goldilocks wetlands, they have to have just enough water, but not too much,” Walker added.

The planned hog farm, pumping its 15 million gallons of water a year, might have no effect on this rare fen — or it could cause significant damage. The farm water use might also affect residential wells located nearby — or not.

But without proper testing of the aquifer, there's no way to know for sure.

This fen — which was identified by the DNR in the 1980’s — has two monitoring wells, which automatically measure water levels every 15 minutes.

That provides baseline data to compare against the information collected in the hog farm well test that’s expected to be completed in mid-October. The data collected in the test then will be analyzed with computer modeling.

The MPCA declined to comment on the timeline for a decision on the environmental review, but pointed to a case in 2016 in which a large dairy farm project was delayed for several months after the public comment period closed “in order for the MPCA to consider the final results from DNR aquifer testing and analysis.”

If the agency decides to allow the hog farm project to move forward without further environmental review of the water use, MCEA attorney Joy Anderson said her organization is likely to file a challenge.