Marjorie Vance never saw herself as an activist. Then she learned that a farmer up the road was installing two confined animal feeding operations—factory farms—each with thousands of hogs. Vance, 74, and her husband, John Vance, farm corn, wheat and soybeans on their 200-acre Kosciusko County farm, and have for decades. They knew that each CAFO produces tons of manure. And in Indiana, with its lax regulations, that means pollution.
“We’re just really concerned. If he gets the CAFOs, he’ll just spread the manure all around our place,” Vance says. “We just don’t like the pollution.”
Pollution from CAFOs threatens Kosciusko County’s famous lakes, which include the largest natural lake in Indiana (Lake Wawasee) and the deepest (Lake Tippecanoe), both popular tourist destinations. “We’re so proud of them,” Vance says. But most of the lakes are already impaired, with large slicks of toxin-producing blue-green algae that can make the water dangerous to swim in.
CAFOs are the major reason. Kosciusko County has 77 hog, poultry and dairy CAFOs, more than all but five of the state’s 92 counties. Around Indiana, manure from 2000 similar operations has been applied to farm fields by the ton. This manure often runs off, polluting streams and lakes with high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, fueling blue-green algae blooms, and creating a hotbed for dangerous fecal bacteria like E. coli, which can cause diarrhea, kidney problems, or worse.
Good standards, effectively enforced, could prevent most of the pollution from Indiana’s 2000 CAFOs, but right now the state’s standards are weak and rarely enforced, says Falon French, a policy researcher at the Hoosier Environmental Council. “There is manure and farm runoff entering our waterways that never gets addressed,” she says. “Nobody is ever penalized, and right now taxpayers must pay for remediation,” she adds.
To prevent pollution from livestock operations, CAFOs and the manure they generate should be barred from sensitive areas like floodplains and cave country, where minute amounts of pollution can trash essential underground aquifers, French says. Manure from CAFOs should be treated or composted to kill the dangerous fecal coliform bacteria it carries. When CAFO operators spread manure on land to dispose of it, the amounts should be strictly controlled to ensure it never overwhelms the land’s ability to absorb it and never runs off into streams and rivers. What’s more, manure should be applied to land only when it’s set back a safe distance from homes, lakes and streams.
The huge basins or “lagoons” where CAFOs store manure by the tanker truckload should have to be leak-proof and set back a safe distance from homes and waterways. And if there are spills, good inspection, enforcement and penalties should ensure that polluters pay a price.
None of this is true right now in Indiana, and the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), HEC and other conservation groups, including a grass-roots group of rural residents called Indiana CAFO Watch, have pushed for better rules for years. But politically powerful agriculture groups like the Indiana Farm Bureau and the National Pork Producers Association have opposed them. As a result, Indiana has only tightened water pollution standards when it was forced to, ignored many water quality violations, and enforced standards in just a few extreme cases.
ELPC and its partners petitioned the US EPA to revoke Indiana's authority to grant Clean Water Act permits in 2009 because of the state's consistent failure to protect against pollution from factory farms and other industry. The petition is still pending with US EPA.
Back in Kosciusko County, Vance, a neighbor named Janet Ecklebarger, and 200 other local residents recently packed a public meeting to keep more CAFOs from invading their picturesque county. And any day now, the Vances could hear whether their neighbor’s CAFO application is approved. “We’re all just holding our breath,” she says.
What you can do:
Click here to ask the Indiana Department of Environmental Management for better oversight of factory farms.