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The dirty truth behind Ohio’s toxic algae plague, and how we can stop it

Adam Rissien, October 14, 2015

You’ve probably seen one too many headlines about toxic algae fouling our waterways. For the past several summers, toxic algae has become an increasingly disastrous issue for Lake Erie. Just talk to the folks in Toledo who went a whole weekend without safe drinking water last summer. But in the last few weeks, we’ve learned of 650 miles – process that for a minute – of toxic algae poisoning the Ohio River.

Let’s admit it, Ohio has a toxic algae problem.

And we know the primary cause: too much runoff pollution from big agriculture flowing into streams and lakes. While certainly not the only source of this pollution, industrial-scale livestock operations that house thousands of hogs, cows, chickens, and turkeys in confined spaces produce huge amounts of manure that often end up on crop fields. In addition to commercial fertilizer, these “nutrients” are often applied in amounts greater than crops actually need to grow. The excess manure and fertilizer drain into ditches and ultimately our streams and lakes, providing the perfect “food” for toxic algae.

There have been several commendable efforts to curb runoff pollution, and many farmers are doing their best to keep our waterways clean. But the fact is more needs to be done, especially for livestock operations that do not have a permit from the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA). Not having a permit means not being required to stick to plans that keep livestock waste from polluting our streams and lakes.

Ohio has literally thousands of these unpermitted factory farms. And even more are being built each year. In fact, it’s a common practice to keep the number of animals just under the threshold where a permit would be required. This means very big livestock operations are raising thousands of animals in Ohio with little oversight and few rules to follow.

These “just-under” the-permitting-limit factory farms pose a serious threat to communities and the environment. Earlier this year, we received series of letters from neighbors in Knox County about the effect these operations are having on their quality of life and property values. The OEC received more letters from residents in Putman and Darke counties as well.  These good people are pleading for help, but few of our leaders in Columbus are listening. We have to do better for our neighbors. The excerpts below illustrate the problem in disturbing detail:

“I am writing this letter to explain the situation my family and neighbors are in. We have a hog CAFO being built 300 yards from our homes…The smell, the flies and the loss of property value [result] to the extent they cannot sell their homes. No one wants to live next to a CAFO. On Granny Creek after spreading too much liquid manure on too little land, rain washed the manure down on three different homeowners [property]….One neighbor had to finally auction their home to get away.”

“The impact of these facilities is devastating to our community. First, and foremost, they pollute our air and water… It [manure] is spread on lands surrounding our properties, leaving our drinking water at risk of contamination, our ponds vulnerable to nitrate pollution, and our air fetid and foul.”

“On Sparta road April 30th through May 2nd, the CAFO owner spread his liquid hog manure over his acreage slinging it around through a large hose he drug with his tractor. The smell traveled up to 8 miles and depending how the wind blew at any given time it was unbearable to be out doors…Fredericktown Schools were inundated with the order and the bus ride home had the kids gagging.”

“These CAFF/CAFO are not farms, you never see the animals…you smell the manure, you hear the pigs squeal during transport early in the morning 1:50am.  We worry about our water, most of the neighbors wells are 50ft as ours is also. We are prisoners of our own home, not being able to enjoy our yards, our pools, even our rockers outside.”

“We are concerned about the impact that thousands of hogs will have on our environment. We worry about the air our young children (Jack, age 3 and Lucy, age 1) will breathe. Beyond the stench, what about the hydrogen sulfide, bacteria and ammonia that will pollute our air?  Will our wells become polluted with nitrates & make us sick? Will we be overrun with flies and never be able to sell our homes because nobody else would want to live this close to this many hogs?”

It’s time these “just –under” facilities are better regulated. If not treated like the larger livestock operations and made to get a permit, then at the very least they should be required to develop and follow plans that will prevent their pollution and protect people’s health and property.

The OEC worked with Ohio Senator Edna Brown (Toledo) to develop legislation that would do just that. SB 224 would level the playing field by making sure large, corporate farms and poorly regulated livestock operations must:

  • Report on the amount of manure spread, sold, or transferred to others
  • Develop and follow pollution prevention plans that utilize best management practices appropriate for each operation.
  • Use the right amount of fertilizer and manure; which is only the amount crops actually need to grow.

These are reasonable measures that would go a long way to address Ohio’s algae crisis and improve the lives of thousands of Ohioans who live next to unpermitted livestock operations. Please call your state senator in Columbus at 1-800-282-0253 and ask them to support Ohio Senate Bill 224. Your phone call can make a difference!