“What we’re up against” – North Dakota towns fight Farm Bureau to try to keep water clean

By Keith Schneider

DEVILS LAKE, ND – When Clark Steinhaus first heard about a plan to build a feeding operation for 2,499 hogs near the shoreline of North Dakota’s largest natural lake, he was alarmed. As chair of Pelican Township’s board of supervisors, Steinhaus worried the manure generated by so many hogs could easily contaminate area waterways, including 160,000-acre Devils Lake and its 375 miles of shoreline.

His concerns were not surprising given the fact that each year, US industrial-scale feeding facilities – the standard for American meat and dairy production – generate, store, and spread millions of gallons of untreated liquid feces and urine across farmland. Mammoth dairy, hog, poultry, and beef cattle operations are notorious across Corn Belt states for fouling the air with rank odors and contaminating surface and groundwater with toxic nitrates, phosphorus, and bacteria.

“We got documentation from the pig boys’ engineers that said they’re going to build a 12-foot deep pit under the facility – four-inch concrete, no rebar, only wire mesh. No rubber lining,” said Steinhaus. “They were going to store millions of gallons of manure in that pit. Yeah. Water pollution is a concern here.”

The three-member Pelican Township board unanimously rejected the construction permit application in 2019, deciding it did not meet requirements of the applicable zoning ordinance.

The seemingly straight-forward decision on behalf of a tiny township that is home to only 23 residents came back to haunt Steinhaus, miring the township in litigation and dragging it into a sweeping campaign by the American Farm Bureau Federation to upend local zoning rules that aim to curtail industrial-sized animal agriculture across the United States.

The North Dakota Farm Bureau’s lawsuit against Pelican Township was one of three such lawsuits filed in North Dakota, and among many brought across US farm country as the Farm Bureau levers the courts, legislatures and elected leaders to impede regulation of large-scaled animal agriculture and the foul odors and mammoth waste stream that results.

Five years into its livestock expansion campaign, the Farm Bureau is steadily peeling away important state statutes that make this possible.

“Look at what we are up against,” said Steinhaus. “We have 23 residents in Pelican Township – 23 people live here. We were selling tickets to raffle for cash to pay our lawyers.”