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Runoff remains a problem as 2nd solar farm is planned on St. Olaf land

Water runoff from Northfield’s solar farm plagues nearby farmers Tom Sorem and Greg and Matt Langer, making acres of their fertile land unfarmable, they say.

Since the solar farm’s construction in 2017, they’ve requested the city, the companies that have owned the solar farm and St. Olaf College — which owns the land on which the solar farm sits — to fix the runoff issue. Problems still persist.

As of earlier this month, water saturated approximately a half dozen acres of farmland belonging to the Sorems and Langers north of the solar farm, forcing the farmers to drive around the area, hampering any work in that area. A steady stream of water had been flowing from the Sorems’ farm to the Langers.

When the two families got wind that a second solar farm would be developed next to the original following the Northfield City Council’s approval, they called on the city at a Feb. 18 public hearing to fix the first solar farm’s runoff problem.

But no fix came, they say, and the City Council unanimously approved the second solar farm March 17.

“It’s a huge problem,” Tom Sorem said of the runoff. Although the 5 acres of runoff from the first site is relatively small, it is still unacceptable, he added.

“It’s a major inconvenience, and it’s not something we should have to deal with,” he said. “The problem’s been there since the project started.”

The solar farm is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Energy Renewables LLC, which purchased the solar farm from developer Geronimo Energy in 2015 before it was in use.

BHE General Manager Neal Poteet said when the company became aware of the runoff issue, it had surveyors confirm that the site, including a stormwater pond, culverts and outlets, had been constructed in accordance with plans and permits. Poteet said he reviewed the concerns with Northfield Engineering Manager Sean Simonson and St. Olaf Director of Facilities Kevin Larson.

BHE received permission to install rock at the discharge area to diffuse runoff. However, this year’s melting showed the fix had been inadequate, so BHE decided to plug the outlet with a 4-inch concealed drain last month.

To Poteet, the plug seems to be making a difference. He said the area underneath the plug was a little damp last week but water wasn’t flowing. He noted the plug was in place during construction, speculating it could have been removed by a contractor.

Greg Langer said although plugging the outlet is an improvement, removing the outlet would be better.

Despite the runoff problems, Poteet said the site design has taken into account storm events and snowfall, but noted officials are evaluating ways to enhance the stormwater system after a long stretch of extraordinarily wet years. Such options include rebuilding the site’s stormwater infrastructure or adding a drain tile to remove water from the discharge area.

Langer said the drainage system the solar farm uses has proven insufficient to keep water from flowing to neighboring fields. To him, three large culverts being level with the floor of the containment area at the solar farm is increasing runoff.

Bennett said the project is in compliance with city codes relating to safeguarding property and controlling or eliminating storm water pollution.

Langer said although Bennett is probably right, those regulations don’t cover farmland, emphasizing the landowners aren’t looking to sue, they just want runoff to be eliminated. To him, the cost of fixing the problem is low, while the goodwill in doing so would be substantial.

The city has been in meetings with BHE to try to fix the problem, though no new firm plans have been made as of yet, Bennett said earlier this month. He added runoff was an issue prior to the solar farm’s construction, something the farmers dispute, and that grass growing underneath and between the solar farm’s panels could be causing additional runoff.

The city has not tested the solar farm’s contribution to runoff, Bennett said.

Larson also attributed much of the problem to heavier rainfall over the past few years and the fact that water flowed in the direction of the two farms even prior to the solar farm’s construction — a statement Sorem and the Langers deny.

The second solar farm will be developed by Hyacinth Solar. Hyacinth plans to loosen surrounding soil, install a stormwater basin and seed the surrounding land with vegetation to ensure that Northfield’s second solar farm does not produce runoff.

The second solar farm’s construction is slated to be completed this year.

Officials believe the solar farms nicely intertwine with the city’s commitment to developing more solar energy as it seeks to transition to carbon neutrality by 2040.

Farmer Matt Langer said he is in favor of solar and wind energy, but that it needs to be done responsibly. He also emphasized they are not seeking compensation, just looking for the problem to be rectified.

He said promises made by BHE to look into the issue haven’t always been met.

“They’ll make you happy the day they’re out here, but nothing pans out afterwards,” Matt said.

Stay-at-home order increasing reports of domestic violence

Local advocates say that Minnesota’s Stay at Home order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is leaving domestic violence victims with fewer options to escape abusive situations, and in many cases, worsening the abuse.

Erica Staab-Absher, executive director of Faribault-based HOPE Center, says abuse victims have told her the restrictions have left them unable to get away from their abuser or that they’ve faced repercussions for calling police. For some, these incidents are ramping up anxiety and/or bringing back past trauma.

The Stay at Home orders mean victims are subjected to their abusers for longer periods of time than before because they are unable to leave except to take care of essential tasks. Children who are being abused are dealing with similar problems. Needed breaks from the home to attend school and other activities have been canceled. Money abuse victims could have secretly stashed to make an escape is now needed for other expenses, because few jobs are completely safe from the economic fallout the coronavirus has brought.

Research has shown one in four adult women and one in seven adult men in America have experienced severe violence — including being hit with something hard, kicked or beaten, or burned on purpose – at the hands of an intimate partner.

Add in high unemployment rates, and that can prove even more detrimental because of stress and anxiety. Because isolation is a tool abusers use to control their victims, leaving them without support from faith communities, friends and others, the Stay at Home order makes life even more challenging for victims of abuse.

When people feel powerless in one area of their lives, they often seek to establish more power in other areas. This is particularly dangerous in domestic violence situations, because domestic abuse is, at its core, an effort by one partner to dominate and establish psychological, emotional, physical and sexual control over the other person.

Another aspect of the coronavirus pandemic is also worsening the situation: Domestic-violence hotlines are reporting calls from victims whose abusers won’t let them leave the house because they might catch the disease, and are threatening to lock them out if they do leave.

These impacts are being felt worldwide. Early reports from China show at least a tripling of domestic violence, and Europe and the U.K. are reporting surges in domestic violence calls.

Police around the country are adapting their domestic violence response plans to prepare for the expected increases and to ensure victims can get help even with restrictions on public movement.

“It is kind of a toxic mess,” Staab-Absher said.

To help those in need, HOPE Center has contacted mental health counselors or helped clients in-house. HOPE Center, which serves all of Rice County, seeks to eliminate sexual and domestic violence through healing, outreach, prevention and education. The center also collaborates with other shelters or safe housing sources so victims can have a safe place to stay until a longer-term solution is available.

“We’ve been doing a lot of that kind of support as well,” Staab-Absher said.

Rice County Social Services Director Mark Shaw said he’s noticed an increase in child protection reports since the stay-at-home order has been issued, a fact he attributes to people being in close proximity to each other while anxiety and tensions run high.

“Sad as we are to see it, I don’t think we are completely surprised by it,” he said.

Rice County Social Services staff are still doing face-to-face investigations when there is a concern over imminent risk to a child. Although the department continues to work with the HOPE Center, Shaw noted some counseling and therapy avenues are harder to access during this time due to social distancing measures. Although teleconferencing is a worthy communication tool, Shaw said it’s easier establish relationships in person.

Chris Davis, Rice County Child and Family Services Unit supervisor, said the number of reports the department is responding to is also higher than usual. She added school staff members in Rice County are checking in more to ensure student well-being, and families are being provided more resources to promote healthy family dynamics.

Grant funding, community support are helping

Some additional funding has helped HOPE Center meet the needs of those they serve. The organization recently received a $6,000 grant from Heading Home, a statewide organization seeking to provide safe, affordable and stable housing.

The federal government’s $2 trillion CARES Act included assistance for nonprofits that provide support for domestic violence victims, letting them apply for business loans and help meeting payroll.

Democratic U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota and a group of 11 Democratic colleagues, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, on Friday urged the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to ensure that immigrant survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and other serious crimes can continue to access programs during the pandemic, through which they can obtain legal status independent of abusers and perpetrators.

“Isolation, economic uncertainty, and anxiety about the spread of the virus have added new stress for many families, which in turn can increase the risk of domestic violence,” the senators wrote in a letter to Kenneth Cucinelli, who’s overseeing Citizenship and Immigration Services. “Immigrants — who often face language barriers, are separated from friends and family, or may not be aware of protections available under U.S. law — can be particularly vulnerable to domestic violence. Additionally, during this pandemic they face increased barriers to accessing legal services and advocacy support. These vulnerabilities are compounded when a person’s immigration status is linked to an abusive partner.”

Staab-Absher said people continue to reach out to HOPE Center, offering help and are sometimes using telehealth services, an approach victims sometimes are more comfortable with. Staab-Absher noted for some clients, especially those with traumatic childhoods, the current situation is made a little easier because of their ability to adapt to chaos and uncertainty.

Safe haven

Sometimes domestic violence victims seek out the HOPE Center because they are undocumented immigrants, have an unfavorable history with Child Protection Services or law enforcement agencies, or are unsure whether the abuse they suffer is criminal. Sometimes they want to talk through options before deciding how to proceed.

The financial dynamics of the unhealthy relationship can also make it difficult for the victim, especially if the abuser controls the finances.

Staab-Absher spoke highly of how well local law enforcement has worked with HOPE Center during this time. She urged victims who might believe law enforcement agencies have more important calls to respond to understand that police officers are committed to helping domestic violence victims.

She stressed that HOPE Center services are free and confidential and can also be tailored to help abusers overcome their unhealthy behavior. Staab-Absher said there is help available for abusers, including therapists and sometimes court-mandated approaches, but added abusers need to want to change to do so.

Abusers who are in treatment for domestic violence or otherwise are trying to get a handle on their problems may also have difficulty because their support options – like attending a counseling meeting, seeing or talking with their therapist, or leaving the house to visit with a friend or work out – are more limited now.

The United Way of Steele County advises victims of domestic violence to stay connected with friends and family through email, text messaging, phone calls or other means to boost mental and emotional health and ensure safety.

“It is especially important to stay in touch with loved ones while you are at home with an abusive partner,” according to a press release. “Check in with them every day to let them know you are OK. Make sure they know how to reach you in an emergency. You may also want to develop a code word or phrase that indicates you are in danger, so they discreetly know when to send help.”

15-year-old in custody after a device resembling pipe bomb found

Northfield police placed a 15-year-old boy in protective custody Friday after finding a device resembling a pipe bomb.

A press release from the Police Department states police received a call from a resident Friday morning reporting that he found a pipe bomb in John North Park on Lockwood Drive.

Police responded and reportedly found a device resembling a pipe bomb. They later determined who the suspect was and made contact with him at his apartment on the 1000 block of Ensley Avenue.

Suspicious devices and an apparent makeshift lab were reportedly discovered in the residence. The building was evacuated, and the St. Paul Police Department Bomb Squad responded to assess the scene and ensure it was safe.

A search warrant was executed at the residence and evidence removed. The boy was taken into protective custody while a further investigation is conducted.

“There is no indication that there is a current public threat,” police state. “No additional information is available at this time.”

Anyone with information on the investigation or similar crimes can contact the Northfield Police Department non-emergency line at 507-645-4475.

“The Northfield Police Department is very appreciative of the citizen in reporting suspicious activity immediately,” police stated in the release. “This is a good reminder to the public that if they see something suspicious, they should say something, by reporting what they saw to local authorities immediately.”

Task force busts two now charged with possession of $1M in meth

Using ground and air surveillance, law enforcement agents tracked a pair of Minnesotans through several states before discovering the two with an estimated $1 million worth of methamphetamine, court records show.

Lucas Jay Madison, 39, of South St. Paul, was charged with a first-degree aggravated controlled substance crime and importing a controlled substance across state borders. Katherine Byrd Campbell, 32, of Rochester, was charged with aiding and abetting the importation of a controlled substance across state borders, and aiding and abetting first-degree methamphetamine possession.

The two were charged after Cannon River Drug and Violent Offender Task Force members, with assistance from other law enforcement agencies, conducted a traffic stop April 14 on a truck traveling north on I-35, 2 miles south of the Lyndale Avenue exit in Faribault, according to court documents. Agents, who had reportedly been tracking Madison and Campbell as they traveled from Phoenix to Minnesota, maintained surveillance on a rental vehicle they were in as they went through Iowa into Minnesota.

A K9 reportedly alerted agents to the passenger compartment of the truck. During two searchs of the vehicle, agents allegedly discovered $17,000 and 23 packages of meth believed to have been intended for trafficking. The meth reportedly weighed 25.3 pounds total.

Task force agents alleged that Madison had been making frequent trips to Arizona to obtain multiple pounds of meth; four to five within the last month. Agents believed he would then sell the meth to dealers in the metro area, who then further distributed the drug, with portions coming into Rice County. Evidence found in the truck allegedly showed Madison has a high place in the drug distribution hierarchy.

In a post-Miranda statement, Madison reportedly admitted to possessing the meth in a backpack, but said he picked up the load at a truck stop just north of the Minnesota/Iowa border. However, surveillance reportedly showed his vehicle drove through an I-35 rest stop as a way to try to identify anyone who could have been following them.

Campbell allegedly admitted to knowing Madison was trafficking large quantities of meth from Arizona for further distribution. She also admitted to flying to Arizona, coming back with Madison and the meth, court documents say.

Madison has a September 2013 conviction in Ramsey County for first-degree possession, and an April 2014 conviction for first-degree possession and fleeing a peace officer in a motor vehicle in Chisago County, according to Minnesota court records.

Judge Jeffrey Johnson set conditional bail for Madison at $1 million and placed conditional bail at $50,000 for Campbell.

“It is unfortunate that criminal activity like this occurs, even more so during these trying times in our society,” said task force Cmdr. Paul LaRoche in a statement. “This case in particular was a large scale investigation involving multiple law enforcement partners. I am proud of how well all worked together to intercept this large quantity of meth and prevent it from being distributed in our state.”