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Sunday, November 22, 2009

DENR Cites Manure Violations at Millner Veblen Dairies

Factory feedlot owner Rick Millner continues to break the rules, threaten the environment, and blame everyone but himself. After flagrant and repeated environmental violations at his CAFOs in Minnesota, Millner's two cattle concentration camps in the Big Stone Lake watershed around Veblen are finally drawing attention from South Dakota's environmental authorities.

According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Tom Meersman, Millner's Veblen operations, including the biggest single dairy in the state, have been breaking the law, filling their manure lagoons to the brim, and risking pollution of the Little Minnesota River and Big Stone Lake. Dairy operators are supposed to keep the manure two feet below the edge of their lagoons to prevent heavy rain from flooding the lagoons and spilling manure. Millner's Veblen dairies have apparently let the manure levels rise so high that the dairy has piled hay bales around the lagoon edges in an attempt to stop crap from lapping over the edges.

On September 18, the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources formally cited Millner for his illegal manure levels at both Veblen dairies. However, it took citizen action to prod Pierre to do its job:

Big Stone Lake Association, a citizens' group with Minnesota and South Dakota members, complained to South Dakota regulators last July about ponds brimming with waste at the Veblen dairies, and submitted aerial photos showing hay bales stacked along the rims to keep liquid waste from lapping over.

...The company has been pumping manure out of the ponds and spreading it on nearby farm fields in recent weeks, but the citizens' group said the ground is too wet to absorb the wastes and manure is running into streams.

Steve Berkner, president of the Big Stone Lake Association, said he and Big Stone County Commissioner Roger Sandberg flew over the area on Nov. 9. They observed a chocolate-brown plume of pollution swirling into Big Stone Lake from the Little Minnesota River, and traced the pollution north for about 45 miles, up the meandering river and one of its tributaries to the dairies.

"The water the whole way up there was brown, and we saw lots of foam on the creek when it was going around rocks," said Berkner [Tom Meersman, "SD Dairy Producer Cited for Pollution Violations," Minneapolis Star Tribune, 2009.11.18].

Meersman follows up on a Joe O'Sullivan Watertown Public Opinion article from Oct 31-Nov 1 (updated online Nov. 3, available to online subscribers). O'Sullivan and Meersman both note that the state has not confirmed any manure runoff, and both run Millner's usual assertions that he's not to blame for any problems. Millner blames wet weather last year and this year that hasn't allowed him to empty his lagoons as quickly as he'd like. Of course, he never mentions the possibility that, to obey the law, he might have reduce his manure output and stop bringing new cattle into the Veblen facilities. (Meersman mentions that Millner "removed all 1,500 cows from Excel Dairy last winter, and moved them to the company's four other dairies"—I wonder how many he moved into his evidently maxed-out Veblen dairies?)

In 2007, the state of Minnesota fined Millner's company $17,400 for dumping too much manure on neighboring fields and other waste-handling violations at its New Horizon Dairy near Hoffman, MN. In 2008, Millner's Excel Dairy near Thief River Falls, MN, stunk neighbors out of their homes. This year the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency shut down Excel Dairy, then issued a one-year permit with strict conditions for Millner to clean the place up. Millner has flouted those conditions and continued to violate state and federal clean air standards.

In other words, Millner has repeatedly conducted business in such a way as to poison the environment around his industrial operations. He won't obey legal orders or even contracts with suppliers.

Now I suspect that defenders of the ag-industrial complex will say I'm just an enemy of agriculture and that I'm "scared of family farmers telling their story." Nothing could be farther from the truth. I share a desire to protect family farms and see independent agriculture remain a strong part of South Dakota's economy. But as Jay Gilbertson, East Dakota Water Development District director, tells Meersman, Millner's factory feedlot "is not a mom-and-pop operation.... This is an industrial milk production facility and needs to be treated as such. This is no one's definition of a family farm."

Veblen East and Veblen West are environmental hazards, operated by a man with a history of breaking the law, breaking contracts, and showing no regard for the well-being of the land or his neighbors. South Dakota has waited far too long to take action against Millner and his bad business practices.


  1. Corey -
    Excellent post - the state is soooooo lax on protecting our waters. Bums like this guy cost all of the citizens of the state, because we get hit with either the clean up costs or the damage to our resources. It punishes operators that do it right, as they have to bear the costs, while he externalizes his -- to us! Thank you for the story
    --Lee Schoenbeck

  2. Excuses are free and easy, but protecting our water supplies is critical. Do people need to apply liquid manure topically or can a person knife it in? I would imagine there is a way to put it back into the soil without risk of damaging the environment, especially with our wet conditions in October.

  3. Thanks for the comment Lee. You beat me to the punch.

    A lot of the opposition to CAFOs when these operations seek permits is not so much NIMBYism, although that does exist, as it is a well founded fear that the State of SD will do little to protect the environment from the damage that these operations do or can do.

    An inspection of the premises during the preceding year would have revealed the dangerously over full cesspools. The excuse that there was no time during an entire year to spread the manure doesn't cut it. And the fine levied is a drop in the bucket for such a big operation.

  4. I hope that DENR was correct in saying that no manure was spilled. It's possible that there was no spill-although hard to prove. Citizens need to know how to take a good water sample with appropriate paperwork and witnesses. Upstream and downstream too. I have written before on behalf of well made and managed ag waste systems as the only way we can raise animals and keep our water quality. I wish their were larger setbacks from rivers and streams and State Parks, etc. It's not a simple issue. MPC could shout orders all day but if Milner's dairy is already bankrupt before the agencies get serious(as seems to be the case in Thief River Falls) then how about some bonding or some kind of mandatory insurance? For trucking manure, etc.--Linda Simmons,Grant Co.


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