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Owatonna’s Quinn Christenson rounds third base after belting a solo home run during Saturday’s 3-2 loss against Wanamingo at Dartts Park in Owatonna. (Michael Hughes/Northfield News)

Environmental group report highlights ag runoff issues

Excessive runoff from more than 23,000 animal feedlots across Minnesota has caused significant damage to the state’s water quality, according a new report from the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.

The EWG’s investigation into the issue of manure overload is the latest in its series of Minnesota-focused reports. While it’s based in Washington, D.C., the organization has a field office in Minneapolis along with two in California.

The organization isn’t without its critics. Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, a Watonwan County farmer, objected to even allowing testimony from the EWG at the legislature’s Subcommittee on Water Policy, blasting the group as “anti-agriculture.”

Other legislators tend to view the group more favorably. Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, who serves as vice chair of the House’s Agriculture Committee, said that from what he’s seen, the group does good, “science-based” work.

According to a 2019 EWG analysis, Minnesota’s water supply included unsafe levels of 10 toxic chemicals and illegal levels of four. Faribault, Northfield and Owatonna did not have illegal levels of any chemicals in their water, but all three cities have amounts of some chemicals above the level recommended by the EWG. Particularly high is the amount of cancer-causing radium in the water. Faribault’s water contains 93 times the amount of radium recommended by the EWG, while Owatonna’s water had 34 times the recommended amount, and Northfield’s water 19 times.

While city water undergoes regular testing, one in five Minnesotans get their water from private wells that are not regularly tested. Many of those wells are in rural areas with high levels of water pollution from agricultural runoff.

Problems and possible solutions

To help ensure that those Minnesotans know exactly what’s in their water, Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, partnered with Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, on a bipartisan bill to create a pilot program for testing the health of well water.

Rep. Todd Lippert supports that bill and has introduced another that would expand the state’s Source Water Protection program to cover private wells. Lippert’s bill has two DFL and three Republican co-sponsors, including Torkelson.

Approximately 3% of the state’s land is currently protected under the Source Water Protection Program, protecting drinking water for 600 communities statewide. That land is subject to special environmental protections under state and federal law.

Despite bipartisan support, neither bill was able to achieve passage in the regular legislative session, halted by conflict between Gov. Tim Walz, a DFL-controlled House and a Republican-controlled Senate.

Improving water quality has been a major priority of state lawmakers for years. While Minnesota may be known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, 56% of the state’s surface bodies of water do not meet basic water quality standards.

According to the MPCA, approximately 85% of that pollution is attributable to so-called “non-point source pollution,” which includes runoff from animal feedlots and cropland. That pollution damages the water quality of surface and underground water alike.

According to an April 2015 report by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Swimmable, Fishable, Fixable?, “the majority of impaired waters are in the southern half of Minnesota, which has the highest number of stressors related to excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, excess sediment, lack of habitat and connectivity and impaired biological communities, all of which are known upshots of over application of livestock manure. More than half of these southern waters fail to the meet swimmable or fishable standards.”

In January, an EWG report noted that approximately 500,000 Minnesotans drink water with elevated levels of nitrates, which has been linked to severe health issues, including different types of cancer, elevated heart rates and a potentially fatal condition known as blue baby syndrome in which infants are deprived of oxygen.

The problem appears to be the worst in rural farming areas. According to the EWG’s latest report, 69 of Minnesota’s 72 agricultural counties saw levels of nitrogen from manure and fertilizer in excess of those recommended by the University of Minnesota and MPCA.

In 13 counties across the state, the amount of nitrogen in the water exceeded the recommended level by more than half. Three of those counties are local: Goodhue clocked in at 160% of the recommended level, Nicollet at 157% and Waseca at 154%.

According to the EWG, Goodhue County is also one of just nine counties in the state where phosphorus overload is of high concern. Once that phosphorus washes into area lakes, it can trigger algae blooms, which in turn produce toxic bacteria.

Feedlots and water quality

Because of the inefficiency of transporting manure, feedlot manure tends not to be dispersed evenly, but instead spread on fields near to the feedlot. That further increases overload and surface runoff near large feedlots.

Across the state, the issue with feedlots has become worse in recent years. Minnesota now has three times as many large feedlots as it did in 1991 and produces 49 million tons of manure annually.

In a prepared statement, MPCA Communications Director and Senior Advisor Darin Broton said that the agency has worked hard to improve water quality. Within five years, Broton said every watershed in the state will have a comprehensive water quality protection plan.

“Together with the Department of Agriculture and the University of Minnesota, the MPCA continues to assess possible measures to limit nutrient runoff from manure spread on farm fields,” he said. “To address phosphorus and nitrogen in the state’s waters, Minnesota relies on a holistic approach that does not single out one industry; rather brings all stakeholders to the table to find common sense solutions.”

Rep. Brian Daniels, R-Faribault, noted that the state has made significant investments in reducing the levels of many water pollutants in recent years, with assistance from funds provided through the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.

Still, Daniels noted that the amount of nitrates in water remains a sore spot. He expressed optimism that with continued investment in conservation efforts, the state could reduce the amount of nitrates in the water to safe levels.

For his part, Lippert said he expects the report to be a cornerstone of future discussions at the capitol in regard to water quality. He said that a key part of the equation will need to be supporting local Soil and Water Conservation Boards.

“Everyone needs access to clean water,” he said. “We have so many farmers that are working really hard to keep our water clean, and we need to make sure we’re supporting those efforts and allowing farmers to expand those efforts.”

Waseca County Sheriff's deputy back on the job after long recovery

After more than eight months away, Waseca County Sheriff’s deputy Josh Langr is back at work. In many ways, he’s lucky to be alive.

While responding to a fatal car crash Oct. 23 on County Road 4 Langr was electrocuted by a downed power line. For nearly the next three weeks he stayed at Hennepin County Medical Center as doctors treated his burns and a baseball-sized hole in his head from where the power line struck him. The dangling power line sent 14,000 volts through his body, burning the back of his calf and his feet.

A green Ford Ranger pickup truck had hit a power pole around 9:30 p.m. Oct. 23, ejecting and killing 15-year-old Alexus Tiegs. A 16-year-old male driver was transported to a Mankato hospital with non-life threatening injuries. Langr, who suffered third-degree burns, was airlifted to HCMC to treat his injuries.

Waseca Sheriff’s Deputy Ryan Rands arrived first on the scene, followed by Langr shortly after. Rands helped treat Tiegs at the scene and first heard about Langr’s injury when he heard, “Officer down,” on the radio. At first Rands thought a car had tried to drive through the crash scene and struck Langr.

“He’s very fortunate,” Rands said. “It was very likely and possible we could have had a double fatal at that accident.”

The truck struck the power pole and the pole slanted. Those on the scene knew the wire was down, hanging over the shoulder, but seeing it amid the flashing lights wasn’t easy.

“There were a lot of emergency vehicles,” Rands said. “There were people all over the place. It was a pretty chaotic scene to start with.”

Langr, a Waseca native, has returned to light duty work with the Sheriff’s Department, meaning he remains at his desk, catching up on training and other work after eight months away. It’s been a long journey and Langr has the scars to show.

Following the initial hospitalization, Langr returned home with an open wound on his head. Doctors sent him home with a wound vacuum that he wore until June when he returned to the hospital to seal the wound. The wound vacuum is a negative pressure system that helps a wound heal faster.

“It was very much a ball and chain,” Langr said of the wound vacuum. “When people want to unload a dishwasher or something, they put their purse down. I have to pick mine up to go unload the dishwasher. I have to pick my purse up to get off the couch. I had to put my purse on to go mow the lawn. It was a pain in the butt.”

If it got bumped it could be extremely painful.

Langr has two boys, Everett, 4, and Elliott, 2, with his wife Kelly. One day while doing laundry in the basement, Elliott came down to see what Langr was doing. Elliott tripped, bumped into the door, which slammed into Langr’s head.

“I definitely saw stars after that,” he said.

Langr had a doctor’s visit scheduled for March 24 to prepare for surgery but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and his procedure was deemed non-essential, which pushed the surgery back to June 1. When he did finally get into surgery, it lasted for seven hours as two doctors worked two procedures to take part of his arm that has veins and arteries and attach that to his head. A second procedure took a skin graft from one of his quadriceps to cover the hole in his arm.

He remained in the hospital until June 5 and will likely have another procedure in the future to help contour his head.

The community rallied behind Langr following his injury and helped raise more than $10,000 through a gofundme page. Kelly had to take time away from work to care for the boys and Langr.

“Everybody’s been super, super supportive,” Langr said. “I get support everywhere.”

The support made Langr want to get back to the job even more. He received so many get wells card that he ran out of room on his hospital windowsill during his first stint in the hospital.

Langr, who originally attended Minnesota State University, Mankato to study electrical engineering, has worked with the Sheriff’s Department since 2002 when he began in corrections. He continued to attend MSU while working in corrections and decided he didn’t like Calculus II and felt pulled toward law enforcement. He became a deputy in 2012 after working with the Janesville Police Department part-time. His presence in the office is a welcome sight for co-workers.

“He’s in good spirits,” Rands said. “He’s happy to be back working. We are super happy that he’s able to come back.”

Langr’s personality helped make the recovery process easy for friends and family, Rands said.

“His personality and sense of humor kept things pretty light from the get-go,” Rands said. “He was able to make the best of it. He’s Josh.”

One of three suspects pleads guilty in slaying of Owatonna father

A man who confessed to his role in killing his daughter’s boyfriend and burying his remains has pleaded guilty to first-degree murder.

Larry Paul McClure Sr., 55, of Pendleton, Kentucky, was charged with the murder of John Thomas McGuire, 38, of Owatonna, on Valentine’s Day 2019. McClure’s daughters, Amanda Michelle Naylor McClure, 31, of Chisago City, Minn., and Anna Marie Choudhary, 32, of Boone, North Carolina, also face first-degree murder charges in connection with McGuire’s death.

McGuire’s body was discovered Sept. 24, 2019, in a grave at a Skygusty, West Virginia, residence after a disclosure by McClure to West Virginia State Police officials. The residence was being rented by McClure at the time.

McDowell County Prosecuting Attorney Emily Miller said Larry McClure entered a guilty plea on July 8 before McDowell County Circuit Court Judge Ed Kornish. No deal was given as part of the plea.

Testifying during a preliminary hearing for Choudhary, a West Virginia state trooper said all three suspects were involved in McGuire’s murder.

“Mr. John McGuire was struck in the head with a bottle of wine, then tied up and then injected with two vials of methamphetamine,” the trooper said during the hearing. “After the injection, he was strangled.”

The trooper said McGuire’s body was originally buried in the backyard of the residence; however it was later moved to a side-yard location where it was discovered by police. Officials said that McClure, a registered sex offender, told police where to find McGuire’s body after being arrested on a failure to register offense.

In a letter to McDowell court officials dated Nov. 4, McClure confessed to the murder of McGuire and provided specifics of the crime. He wrote in detail of McGuire’s suffocation/strangulation death, and listed the roles he and his two daughters played. McClure painted his daughter Amanda McClure, who was McGuire’s girlfriend at the time, as ringleader of the murder, but added that he did not know her motive for the homicide.

“I cannot tell you why Amanda wanted John McGuire dead,” Larry McClure wrote, then alleged that Amanda was spending McGuire’s monthly Social Security checks.

McClure also stated in the letter that he was willing to plead guilty/no contest to the crime, saying that he did not want to waste taxpayers dollars on a trial and wanted to spare the pain a trail would bring to both his and McGuire’s families.

“All I can do is hope for mercy on this, but my sentence on this really does not matter because I am old and in bad health,” McClure wrote. “I will never live to see the parole board in [15] years anyway and this is OK … I will say I am sorry for my part in this crime to both my family and John McGuire’s family.”

McGuire was a father of six and was affectionately nicknamed “Bamma” by his friends and family. The mother of his three eldest children reported him missing in June 2019, saying that not hearing from McGuire on Mother’s Day and his son’s 16th birthday told them that something was seriously wrong. His oldest daughter described him as loving, generous and everybody’s friend.

Court documents revealed an incestuous relationship between Larry McClure and his daughter Amanda. According to the criminal complaint, he wrote that McClure and Amanda McClure, who are biological father and daughter, had a sexual relationship following the murder. Three and a half weeks after McGuire’s death, the two traveled across the state line to neighboring Tazewell County, Virginia, where they were married.

The marriage license reportedly shows the two were wed on March 11, 2019, by a United Methodist Church minister. The license shows Amanda McClure listed the name of another man as the groom and not her father.

The marriage of a father and daughter is illegal in Virginia, with the crime considered a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.

Larry McClure has been incarcerated since his arrest. Amanda McClure and Choudhary are currently awaiting trial.

Miller said the judge has not yet made a decision as to whether the sisters will be tried together.