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A dead spot of more than two acres has fertilizer levels in some cases 20 times the expected rates next to an Arthur Companies elevator location at Page, N.D. Photo taken Sept. 11, 2017, near Page, N.D. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

Page, N.D., landowner alleges spill at Arthur Companies elevator

PAGE, N.D. — Donald and Ruth Garnas believe an Arthur Companies grain elevator at Page, N.D., has drained water that carries fertilizer and maybe herbicides onto their adjacent farm field. They say something created a two-acre dead spot and could harm groundwater, 60 feet below.

They think the problem is coming from the gravel lot from the Arthur Companies elevator in Page. The long-standing family-owned business based at Arthur, N.D., includes several elevators in the region and is headed by Brooks Burgum, a cousin of North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who is on the company's board of directors.

The Garnases requested investigations by the North Dakota Department of Health and the North Dakota Department of Agriculture, and four months later, the Garnases say the results are not in.

Brooks Burgum referred questions to Justin Knott, terminal manager of the Arthur Companies' sites at Page and Pillsbury, N.D. Knott flatly denies that the company has flushed anything but clean water from a five-acre watershed onto the Garnas land from a culvert they installed in 2012.

"It's water — drown-out," Knott says, citing aerial photography dating back to 2003.

Garnas says he installed tile drainage on the spot on the parcel in 2013, so it shouldn't be drowning out.

"If there is a spill there, we have to get that soil out of there, so it doesn't go through the drain tile," he says.

An outsider?

Garnas, 82, has lived in the Page area for 58 years. It's a town of about 250 people.

As a youngster he lived at Detroit, Mich., with his mother. He and a sister moved to North Dakota to be with their father, and he graduated from Fargo (N.D.) Central High School in 1953. He went to the University of North Dakota and emerged in 1957 with a degree in marketing and accounting. He started a job with John Deere but soon went to farming after marrying Ruth Speers of West Fargo. Her parents farmed at Buffalo, N.D., but bought parcels around Page in 1959. The Garnases grew the farm and established a 300-cow beef operation.

In 1974, Garnas was the first in the area to irrigate with center pivots.The Garnases went out of cattle in 1981 and survived through the farm credit crisis. They retired from active farming in 2001 and in 2008 bought a home in Maui, Hawaii.

From 2009 to 2016, the Garnases had rented out their farm to McM Inc. McM grew to 50,000 acres in 2015 with rented land. McM went bankrupt in February 2017, so the Garnases put their land out on bids. Jason Mewes, 37, of Colgate, N.D., became the new renter. Mewes is a former leader in state soybean and edible bean groups.

In the middle

The Arthur Companies bought the Page elevator in 2005. In 2012 they developed an office, seed tanks and a liquid fertilizer building on the south side of the property. About that time, the Arthur Companies attempted to purchase the Garnas parcel to expand the elevator. Land price was at least one sticking point to Garnas.

"Basically, I didn't want to sell it either," he says.

Blocked in expansion at Page, Knott says the company in 2014 built a "greenfield" facility outside Pillsbury, N.D., 10 miles to the west. The new terminal has a 2 million bushel grain storage capacity, a circle track on the main BNSF line and a 10,000-ton fertilizer warehouse.

On June 20, Mewes went to the Arthur Companies elevator in Page to pick up a grain check. Just outside the window, he could see problems on the 65-acre parcel he rents from Garnas.

"The corn that had come up was looking really sick — kind of like it was going to die," Mewes says.

There hadn't been excessive rainfall, but Mewes saw algae growth. Water from the Arthur Companies culvert had a yellowish tinge.

Garnas contacted the North Dakota Department of Agriculture Pesticide Enforcement Division.

Mewes met with Brooks Burgum, Kevin Karel, the company's general manager over all of its facilities, and with Justin Knott, the terminal manager for Page and Pillsbury.

"They were concerned that I was upset, which obviously I am," Mewes says. "This is our first year renting the land, and we want everything to be perfect."

They later told him the elevator wasn't at fault.

Off the charts

On July 7, Mewes hired Debbi Midstokke to collect soil samples. Midstokke and her sister have a Pioneer seed dealership — Page Seed & Agronomy, Inc. Midstokke sent the samples to an Agvise laboratory in Northwood, N.D.

Fertilizer levels were "off the charts" — nitrogen at 500 pounds per acre where it should have been 80 pounds, phosphorus was 500 parts per million when it should be 20 ppm, and sulfur was 15 ppm when it should have been 1 ppm.

On Aug. 3, Garnas says he met privately with Knott and Karel. He says it was his impression that they were "sorry" and would try to remedy the situation. Knott acknowledges only that the elevator was trying to come to some solution on the water.

On Aug. 4, Mewes again noticed pumping. Midstokke collected water samples. The North Dakota Department of Health said they would pick up the samples but later declined to test them because they hadn't collected them. The department took samples Sept. 12 from an irrigator three-quarters of a mile away and at the Garnas home on the east side of Page. Results aren't expected until Dec. 1, says Karl Rockeman, director of water quality.

Meanwhile, Agriculture department results for pesticide levels in tissue and soil samples should be available within a couple of weeks, says Commissioner Doug Goehring. According to law, Garnas will only be told if the investigation indicates a violation.

What next?

Knott speculates fertilizer got elevated during the McM days, a contention Mewes later called "improbable." Mewes sees the dead spot, devoid of weeds four months after any herbicide. He sees kernels in cobs sprouting kernels in the husk at the end of the ears, and wonders what it means.

Mewes looks at the "containment system" around the elevator's bulk liquid fertilizer station and wonders if the elevator could pump rainwater into containers and haul the liquid elsewhere for disposal, rather than pumping it toward his field.

Knott says that the elevator has no plans to do anything more — until there is proof it would have an effect.