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Poor manure practices culprit in thousands of fish deaths

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    Ohio Division of Wildlife officer Anthony Lemle next to Beaver Creek in Holiday City, Ohio on Wednesday. Fish in the creek were killed after a significant rain event flooded manure into the creek.

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    Manure spread across more than 100 acres of farmland just before a major thunderstorm rolled in killed close to 15,000 fish in Williams County’s Beaver Creek.

    ODNR

Poor manure management has been blamed for about 66,000 fish deaths along three western Lake Erie tributaries this month, with a fourth site heavily polluted but narrowly averting disaster. 

The incidents started Aug. 4 with 14,600 fish killed in Hardin County’s Bloom Ditch and part of the Blanchard River. On Aug. 6, another 36,800 fish died in Allen County’s Jennings Creek, followed by approximately 15,000 more dead in Williams County’s Beaver Creek on Aug. 17. In each case, manure was believed to have been applied improperly or just before rain arrived, killing fish with oxygen-robbing ammonia that got into the water.

Last Saturday, Ohio Department of Natural Resources wildlife officers responded to another sickening release of manure. That one was in Little Black Creek near Rockford, Ohio.

Little Black Creek is a tributary of the St. Mary’s River, which flows into the Maumee River, and eventually out to Lake Erie.

Matt Hoehn, Ohio DNR wildlife field supervisor based in Xenia, Ohio, said the creek was definitely discolored and “had an odor of manure.” Officers didn’t trawl the creek bed for dead fish. The Ohio DNR usually doesn’t do that for such events, Mr. Hoehn said. Enough fish were seen swimming near the surface — alive, though perhaps a bit disoriented — to convince them there wasn’t a large die-off.

“It stressed them out, but not to the extent of killing them,” Mr. Hoehn said.

Environmentalists have implored the Kasich administration to do more for Lake Erie and its tributaries since 500,000 metro Toledo residents were told to temporarily avoid their tap water three years ago this month because of an algal toxin that had breached the city’s water-treatment system. Manure and other farm-based nutrients were blamed for making a bloom in the lake too toxic for the city.

The fish kills are significant because the agriculture industry has worked hard to develop a “4R” certification process. Thousands of applicators have been taught the right source, the right rate, the right time, and the right place to spread manure and synthetic fertilizers.

“Fish are the sentinel species,” Pam Taylor, a retired Lenawee County teacher who coordinates with the Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan, said. “If something happens to the fish, it’s dangerous to everyone downstream.”

ECCSCM is one of the most vocal critics of livestock facilities large enough to be classified as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality admitted years ago the group’s stream-testing convinced it to take the issue more seriously.

Ms. Taylor comes from a family that has had a small farm near the River Raisin since 1837. She said she believes a lot of manure “never gets incorporated at all.”

“The fundamental problem is we have too much manure for the soil to handle,” she said. “Cows poop 24 hours a day. You have to get rid of it.”

Many people may have good intentions, but the participation rate isn’t always great, Ms. Taylor said.

“It’s what they do when they think people are not looking,” she said.

Typically, livestock operators contract out manure application to others, who spread it on nearby crop fields as part of the industry’s state-approved manure management plans. The state allows those plans to be kept secret. The agriculture industry has convinced lawmakers environmentalists might harass farmers who take the manure if their names are revealed.

Joe Cornely, Ohio Farm Bureau Federation spokesman, said a light rain shouldn’t create runoff issues if manure is applied to land correctly.

“The law’s standards aren’t arbitrary; they’re science-based,” he said.

“We also believe the public recognizes that farmers want to do and are doing the right thing,” Mr. Cornely said. “But despite the farmer’s best efforts, sometimes Mother Nature wins.”

He said the farm bureau is trying “to convey to farmers that individual actions can help or hurt our industry.”

The Ohio Environmental Council said in a report Tuesday that Ohio has thousands of animal feeding operations. But only 231 hold permits as CAFOs. Hundreds appear to keep their animal numbers down just enough to keep from being regulated as CAFOs, the group said.

This month’s fish kills “clearly highlight that the way manure is used on farm fields can have a disastrous impact on rivers,” Kristy Meyer, OEC vice president for policy, said.

“The reality is in Ohio we have so little information about how much manure is spread and where it is spread, and if it is being done properly,” she said.

Sandy Bihn, Lake Erie Waterkeeper founder, said she is “outraged” the state of Ohio did not announce the fish kills.

“It’s a serious matter when fish are killed in streams,” she said. “You can’t keep overapplying [manure] and not expect to have a problem.”

She said she is worried about northwest Ohio’s continued growth of large livestock facilities.

“This problem isn’t going away. It’s going to get worse. They know that and they keep permitting these facilities,” Ms. Bihn said. “What sense does that make?”

Mike Ferner is founder of Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie, a group that has called for a moratorium on new CAFOs permits.

He said this month’s manure pollution “clearly demonstrates how worthless the regulations are” and said it is obvious state agencies don’t have anywhere near enough resources to enforce rules.

But Brett Gates, Ohio Department of Agriculture deputy communications director, said the state agriculture department works “to ensure operations are following laws” that are intended to protect the environment while allowing the industry to be productive.

“In the event a bad actor is identified, the department works with collaborative agencies such as Ohio EPA, ODNR, and local soil and water conservation districts to ensure that the producer comes into compliance with the law, and/​or carry out penalties if necessary,” Mr. Gates said.

Dina Pierce, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency spokesman, said her agency issued a notice of violation to DJ Wagner Acres LLC of Kenton, Ohio, in the Hardin County case, and ordered the company “to stop the flow from the field tile, aerate the stream and, if possible, remove impacted water.”

It also cited field owner David Youngpeter of Spencerville, Ohio, for the Allen County event. Mr. Youngpeter complied with an order to “prevent further release from the field, incorporate manure on the field into the ground as soon as possible, remove impacted water if possible and immediately begin aeration of the creek,” Ms. Pierce wrote.

The Ohio EPA is assisting with the Williams County investigation, she said.

Contact Tom Henry at thenry@theblade.com, 419-724-6079 or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.

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