By Linda M. Hasselstrom, ILCW Member (USA)
These one hundred acres are the beating heart of my South Dakota ranch.
Here, century-old cottonwoods beside gurgling Battle Creek shelter pregnant cows through the winter. Here we harvest hay for the entire ranch. Here my parents once planned to build their retirement home.
In January, the nearby town’s sewage lagoon spilled 1.5 million gallons of wastewater across these fields. With an engineer from the state Surface Water Quality Program, I visited the site. The town’s Public Works director was casual about the dangers and hostile to my questions. But a DENR employee who specializes in Confined Animal Feeding Operation information said cattle should be kept off the land for at least 30 days due to high concentrations of E.coli bacteria.
I filed a complaint with the Town of Hermosa and notified the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Officials told me the town regularly dumps sewage illegally, violating state rules. Since state law provides for substantial financial penalties for repeated violations, I expected hefty fines that might inspire the town to clean up its mess. I hoped state experts could provide technical assistance to help the town meet its obligations.
At a town meeting I attended, officials admitted they had expected the lagoon to overflow because usage was overwhelming existing facilities. They discussed adding a new waste cell, and building a berm between their lagoon and my property. They admitted that, in violation of state statute, the lagoon is monitored mostly by the owners of the land on which it lies.
Like a good citizen, I expressed my concerns, and then waited for state and local officials to do their jobs.
I was utterly naïve. All over the west, as ranches become subdivisions, little towns are suddenly surrounded by new houses built by folks escaping cities. Many rural elected officials have never even lived in a town. How can these folks plan for the growth and expectations of new citizens used to urban life?
In July, I took the granddaughter of the man who homesteaded that land in the 1800s to see the avenue of ancient cottonwoods he planted. She loved at the blue skies, the fresh air, and the charming view of the little town—until I pointed out the lagoon. We avoided the polluted soil.
Now it’s September, nine months after the spill. Across the highway from my sewage- fouled fields stand a new church, new American Legion Hall, and another subdivision. Going about my business—haircut, checking out books from the library, collecting my mail—I ask residents if they know where their sewage goes. Most do not, so I tell them, pointing to the reeking pond across the highway.
I also remind the lagoon’s neighbors that the town has a reputation for dumping garbage on its neighbors and failing to clean it up. In 2007, when a flood damaged and destroyed subdivision houses close to the lagoon, an estimated 23,000 pounds of gasoline cans, car parts, lawn mowers, dead animals and lumber washed into my field. The weedy pile of trash 20 feet high remains.
Recently, I wrote SDDENR officials, the town’s Floodplain Administrator, and the Public Works director asking what actions have been taken to prevent future sewage spills on neighboring property. Has the town paid a fine? Have other violations occurred? Is the lagoon properly monitored to prevent overflow?
I have received no response to my questions. The town has not built a new sewage cell or a berm, but recently notified me that “land application” –dumping sewage wastewater–will occur before November 1.
Naturally, I’m furious that the value of my property has been damaged, if not destroyed. But I’m also worried about the effect of such irresponsibility on the citizens of the town and county.
Developers have profited greatly as former hayfields for ranches like mine blossom with subdivision houses. No one—not the developers, the town, the county or state–takes responsibility for the effects of this development on the environment, the groundwater, the hapless new residents of those subdivisions, or the rural neighbors.
This problem exists all over the west. How many towns have unpleasant but necessary facilities too close to homes because the town planners didn’t expect the town to get that big? Still, as towns grow, it’s their responsibility to provide safe sewage disposal, among other things.
What can a law-abiding citizen do to protect health and property from the effects of irresponsible development? Apparently appealing to state and local officials is useless.
If you dream of moving to some charming rural town where you can get to know your neighbors, take a good look at the sewage disposal system before you move. Along with a folksy small-town welcome, you may get your neighbors’ sewage.
The website of the town of Hermosa, in Custer County, South Dakota, says the town is “not only a great place to visit, but a safe and welcoming place to raise your family.” I can’t agree.