The Purple River: Illinois Seeks to Balance Its Agriculture Interests Against Clean Water Efforts
Matthew Alschuler couldn’t believe his eyes. The South Fork of the Apple River near his home in Jo Daviess County was flowing in front of him, and it was the color of grape Kool-Aid.
His first thought last fall was of the nearby unfinished “mega-dairy” that was somewhat operational. “He’s done it again,” Alschuler says he thought. “We’d complained about previous discharges before, but this was just staggering. The guy doesn’t even have cows there yet.”
Alschuler attached a bottle to a long pole and scooped up a sample. He called the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Following an investigation, the agency pointed to silage leachate stored at Tradition Dairy as the source of the purple liquid.
The color may have been caused by bacterial contamination, but no one is entirely sure. Dairy attorney Donald Manning contends no harm was done to the environment, even as the dairy is defending itself before the Illinois Pollution Control Board. “It was a big splashy event,” Manning says. “I do know from my own very active involvement that the color is no indicator of any kind of harmful content or pollutant that would cause any damage to aquatic life or animals.”
While the story of the purple-flowing river grabs headlines, getting to the heart of issues involving the environment, pollution and the farming of animals in Illinois is as complicated as trying to figure out how the leachate turned that bright shade of purple.
Illinois ranks 12th on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of impaired waters by state, with agriculture nationally the biggest “probable source of impairment.” An IEPA 2010 draft report on water quality shows 657 stream miles and 23,355 lake acres likely “impaired” by livestock operations. Meanwhile, environmental groups call Illinois among the worst when it comes to laws regarding factory farming and pollution control enforcement. Last fall, the federal goverment rebuked the IEPA, noting widespread problems with its monitoring of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, and calling for improvements. That action landed Illinois smack dab in the middle of the environment vs. factory farm debate.
Understanding how Illinois got there requires a look back to the 1970s, when the Environmental Protection Agency was founded and the Clean Water Act was passed. The law aimed to control water pollution through such sweeping reforms as setting water quality standards, implementing pollution control programs and requiring permits for pollutant discharges into waterways. The permits would become an issue later for farmers, but at the time, the main focus was on factory pollution.
In Illinois at that time, the IEPA gave only about 35 percent of streams a good water quality rating. There were about 128,000 farms in Illinois, and as is the case now, the state was one of the top hog producers in the nation. Among the farmers were Sandy and Eldon Gould, a young couple who settled in Maple Park, east of DeKalb, to build a state-of-the-art facility to house hogs. A concrete pad outfitted with heating coils and huts for the pigs was built on a slope so rain would wash manure into a lagoon in front of the huts. Rather than move the hog operation to a different field each year and plow under the manure that accumulated, the Goulds would fertilize their cropland with the manure lagoon. It was an improvement over keeping the hogs in an open pasture. The survival rate of piglets was higher, and the hogs’ skin didn’t crack from the sun.
Meanwhile, about 40 miles north in Woodstock, Linnea and Joel Kooistra were starting out their married life on a dairy farm. Joel Kooistra’s parents had just built a freestall barn, a new concept in dairy farming, giving the cows freedom normally reserved for the pasture. Cows could walk around, lie down or get a drink. When Linnea was a child, dairy farmers liked to operate near a creek for sustenance for their herds. When it rained, manure would run off the pasture into the creek. “My dad always said the smell of manure is the smell of money,” she says.
Since those days back in the 1970s, water quality and farming have seen improvements. “Especially in our streams,” says Greg Good, manager of the surface water section in the Bureau of Water at the IEPA. Now, the percentage of Illinois streams having good water quality has increased to 63 percent, he says. Most of the improvement is because of vigilance over point-source pollution from manufacturing. “We need to make sure we keep it under control, but we also realize that point-source pollution control is not the only thing out there,” Good says.
There has been a nationwide shift of attention to other causes of pollution, particularly from farms that have historically enjoyed some freedom from environmental restrictions, says Scott Edwards, director of advocacy for Waterkeeper Alliance. “There was a real hesitancy to treat agriculture the way you treated manufacturing plants,” he says. “This has led to what you’re seeing now, massive complexity. You’ve got this tension from the agriculture industry that holds itself out as being very different. Agriculture doesn’t want to be treated like an industry.”
Numbers from the Illinois Agriculture Statistics Service best tell the story of how farming in Illinois has changed. While the farm acreage in Illinois has only dropped from 29.5 million to 26.7 million acres from 1970 to 2007, the number of farms took a free fall from 128,000 to 75,800 during that time. The number of livestock also dropped — from 6.3 million hogs in 1970 to 4.35 million in 2009, and 3.3 million cattle in 1970 to 1.2 million in 2009, according to inventory figures. Meanwhile, the number of big hog operations grew. In 1993, there were 70 farms with 5,000 or more hogs; in 2007, 210 farms had those big numbers. Those statistics bear out the phenomena that fewer farmers are growing the food for our country and that farming has become more sophisticated and efficient.
The Goulds, for instance, joined a local farming network and began specializing in the birthing of piglets. Two other farms oversee the hogs until they reach market weight at about six months of age. “It’s all consumer-driven,” Eldon Gould explains. “The meat packer wants a semi-load of hogs of the same genetics because the consumer wants a package of pork chops of consistent quality and size.” To regularly fill a semi with full-grown hogs, Gould would have to greatly increase his 300-sow operation. He saw specialization as a better option.
Gould’s farm also has become more sophisticated. Manure is collected under the hog barns through slats in the floor. For a penny a gallon, it’s pumped out twice a year by a contractor who uses a machine with a rake-like claw that literally injects the manure into soil where Gould raises corn, soybeans and winter wheat. But before that happens, Gould has the manure and his fields tested for levels of nutrients so that he knows what he’s applying to his fields, how to supplement with fertilizer and exactly what to put down on each acre. It is the best way to maximize crops and keep neighbors happy. The injected manure eliminates odor and runoff.
The Kooistras’ 200-head dairy also uses manure as a money-saving alternative to expensive fertilizers. These days, most farmers operate in the same way or they lose money, the farmers say.
Although neither farm is big enough to qualify as a large concentrated animal feeding operation (1,000 hogs bigger than 55 lbs. or 1,000 cattle), both families say larger businesses would run the same and be subject to more regulations. Regardless, farmers’ best interests lie in taking care of the environment, not only because it makes them more profitable, but because 98 percent of farms are owned by individuals or families, according to the American Farm Bureau.
“I was raised on a farm, as were my parents and grandparents,” Linnea Kooistra says. “We live here, and we breathe the air and drink the water. We want it good for the next generation. It’s in our blood.”
Both the technological improvements and sentiments are common among Illinois farmers, says Jim Fraley, livestock program director for the Illinois Farm Bureau. Some use methane digesters to turn manure into electricity. Leftover waste fertilizes crops. “In the past, farmers would pitch manure into a spreader and would apply it to the field closest to the barn. Now it is seen as a resource,” Fraley says. Farmers with more manure than they can use sell it to neighboring crop farmers.
While that sounds green, environmental groups such as Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water (ICCAW), Environment Illinois, Prairie Rivers Network and Helping Others Maintain Environmental Standards (HOMES) are skeptical. They view large concentrated animal feeding operations not as farms but as manufacturing plants and say they should be treated as such. The groups have a number of concerns, such as the IEPA’s ability to monitor farms, laws in Illinois and discharge permits for the animal operations. For starters, the IEPA does not have a complete database of livestock operations, although it is working on one. Richard Breckenridge, IEPA agriculture and rural affairs adviser, estimates there are about 27,000 farms with some livestock and about 400 large CAFOs in Illinois. The IEPA knows where 20,000 of them are. Of those, the IEPA surveyed 124 in 2009. And of those, 59, or 48 percent, had one or more regulatory violations. Eight were referred to the attorney general’s office for a significant environmental issue such as a fish kill.
A lack of confidence in the IEPA led the Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water to petition the federal EPA to look into Illinois practices, which in turn, led to the admonishment of the IEPA last fall to better oversee large livestock farms or risk losing its enforcement authority. “[Illinois’] failure to regulate this industry must have been particularly egregious to warrant this response from the EPA,” says Edwards from the Waterkeeper Alliance. “It is a rare example that the EPA has seen fit to go that far.”
In response, the IEPA promised to create and maintain a statewide inventory of CAFOs, hire more staff — for a total of nine people — to manage pollutant discharge permit applications and inspections, communicate better with the public on complaints and seek authority to fine facilities that don’t comply with environmental guidelines. The IEPA is acting swiftly, Breckenridge says. As of June 1, the agency submitted a revamped discharge permit to the Illinois Pollution Control Board for approval, pledged to complete 24 discharge permits, inspected 35 livestock operations and was working to shore up its list of farms in Illinois. Because the IEPA doesn’t have the authority to require farms to register with the agency, it resorts to tactics such as looking at aerial maps for features distinctive to animal farms.
Environmentalists appreciate those measures but also want Illinois to adopt stricter environmental laws such as those in Michigan and Minnesota. At issue is the federal discharge permit, which strengthened CAFO regulations in 2003. It has faced court challenges by environmental and agriculture groups, muddying enforcement in Illinois. At one time, the federal permit was required for anyone with the potential to discharge pollution, but a recent court ruling found permits can only be issued to facilities that actually discharge.
Environmentalists argue that all farms expel pollution and should have a permit. On the flip side, farmers argue that CAFO operations contain animal waste to farmland, and any runoff is incidental or accidental. The IEPA uses permits to require farm improvements; it’s the only enforcement tool the agency has. Environmental groups want the IEPA to have the authority to issue fines, and they believe all farms should file specific nutrient management plans for handling waste. They also want large meat processing companies that often own the farmers’ animals to be liable for environmental problems. “If we had the political will, we could go beyond minimal standards set by the federal EPA and solve the problem once and for all,” says Danielle Diamond, an attorney for ICCAW. “If we wait for clarity on the federal level, we could be waiting for an indefinite amount of time to clean up CAFO pollution in Illinois.”
At press time, a new environmental measure was awaiting the governor’s signature. It allows the IEPA and any violator of the Environmental Protection Act, Pollution Control Board rules or permit conditions to voluntarily enter a compliance commitment agreement. Violations of that agreement would be subject to a $2,000 penalty. A bill to require fees for farmers who must obtain discharge permits failed but will be brought back by the IEPA in the fall.
Illinois agricultural groups were opposed to the bills because of ambiguity over the permits and farmers’ long-held view that less government is better. Regulations and legalities are complex. “It’s confusing and convoluting to me, and I’m neck deep in this stuff,” says Jim Kaitschuk, executive director of the Illinois Pork Producers Association.
Take the case of Tradition Dairy and the purple river, a good example of regulations and processes farms face. Tradition was unpopular from the beginning, when it asked to build a dairy with 5,500 cows near Nora in 2007, even though plans call for a state-of-the-art facility that includes a methane digester. The farm is designed to produce all of its own power and to sell some back to the grid, Tradition attorney Manning says. Fierce public outcry against it included a vote not to recommend siting approval by the Jo Daviess County Board. Still, the dairy received a permit and was subject to the Illinois Livestock Management Facilities Act, created in 1996 to better regulate waste handling through setbacks from other properties and waste management plans for larger farms.
Opponents such as Matthew Alschuler, press agent for HOMES, say the dairy will reduce the area’s quality of life. He wasn’t surprised by the pollution, which triggered a visit from the IEPA, a referral to the Illinois attorney general’s office and a five-count complaint filed with the Pollution Control Board. The case is pending.
Despite the setbacks, the farm still plans to open. “The intent here isn’t to do any harm,” Manning says. “Change makes people nervous and afraid. They shouldn’t be about this. Our goal is to get this thing up and running, be a good neighbor and, hopefully, everyone can live happily ever after.”
Illinois laws do a good job protecting the environment and should be enforced, agriculture groups such as the Illinois Farm Bureau and Illinois Pork Producers Association say. “The stick is there,” says Kaitschuk of the pork producers’ association. “It’s not as though these folks are attempting to damage the environment. It doesn’t make sense for them to willfully produce pollution.”
Part of the problem also may be a public relations issue. Because there are fewer farmers, fewer people understand their practices. “We haven’t done a good job educating people today about what we are or telling people what we do,” Kaitschuk says. Both the Gould and Kooistra families are part of a growing national movement to educate the public. Sandy Gould reads farm stories to schoolchildren and donates hogs to Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, while Kooistra gives farm tours to children and educators.
On a higher level, the disagreement may simply be over how America grows its food. “Bigger is not better,” Alschuler says. “We need more farmers, not more animals. More farmers help rural communities and take care of the land that they then pass on to their children.” But Eldon Gould works with his son and views himself as a family hog farmer making a choice to specialize as required by changes in the business of farming. “We have the best farmers in the world,” he says. “We can produce food for less of your expendable income than any country in the world.”
Kristy Kennedy is a Naperville-based free-lance writer.
Illinois Issues, July/August 2011