BOWLING GREEN - Though plenty of people would like to make the big dairies go away altogether, some who attended the first meeting of the Wood County Ag-Energy Task Force yesterday agreed it's worthwhile to explore the idea of using bio-digesters to convert cow manure to energy.
"I think the digesters are a middle road. They're better than nothing and they have the potential to be very good," said Anne Graves, a microbiologist from Bowling Green.
Ms. Graves was among several people who told the task force that no one seems willing to take responsibility for the proliferation of the large-scale dairy farms and the problems they cause to communities.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture issues permits for dairies with 700 or more head of cattle, but representatives told the audience at one dairy permit hearing that the agency did not have jurisdiction over damage caused to local roads, flies, and other issues that result from the operations, Ms. Graves said.
"I asked, 'Who is responsible? Where does the buck stop?' No one could answer," Ms. Graves said.
Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green), who is co-chairing the task force with Wood County Commissioner Tim Brown, said he hopes to see more communication and cooperation among state agriculture, health, environmental, and natural resources agencies now that there has been a turnover in the governor's office and several of those departments.
Mr. Gardner also would like to see Wood County at the forefront of any effort to create alternative energy from manure - something the county has in growing quantities.
Two mega-dairies already are operating in the county while two more are seeking operating permits from the state. A fifth site is being eyed for an 1,800-head dairy in Perry Township at the southeastern end of the county.
While testimony was heard from groups as varied as the League of Women Voters of the Perrysburg Area, the Wood County Farm Bureau, and the Ohio EPA, several Perry Township residents also addressed the task force. They said they wanted commissioners and Mr. Gardner to know they want something done to prevent another dairy from coming in and potentially contaminating their water supply and polluting the air.
"We need to change now, not next week, not the year after," said Ralph Reinhart, who lives near the proposed dairy west of West Millgrove.
Mr. Reinhart read from an opinion piece published in the New York Times that said using bio-digesters to process manure sounds like a good idea but can "create more environmental problems than it solves."
Jack Shaner of the Ohio Environmental Council said he hoped the task force made a serious inquiry into bio-digester technology, which he said offers "some environmental benefits" but is "not a cure-all."
In addition to generating heat and electricity, the technology has been promoted as a way to reduce odor from animal waste and help reduce the potential for groundwater contamination from manure run-off.
"There are more than 40 bio-digesters in operation in the United States," Mr. Shaner said. "We have some on-the-ground performance. Let's look at it. Let's look at the data and talk to the people who live next to these bio-digesters. What do they think?"
Some of the strongest testimony of the morning came from Dr. Ted Bowlus, a physician who serves as president-elect of the Wood County Board of Health. He said that while he would like to hear a presentation on bio-digesters to learn "exactly what you're talking about," he expressed grave concerns about public health risks associated with manure stored in giant lagoons and with pathogens like E. coli that may not be broken down in a digester.
"We're dealing with animals producing waste that's not being handled correctly, in my opinion," he said, adding, "I don't care if you have bio-digesters or not. It's going to cause Wood County to be a wasteland."
Howard Oestreich of Wayne got a round of applause when he suggested the dairies be required to dispose of their waste the same way industries do.
"Run sewer lines out to them. Run water lines out to them. Treat it like any other business, and we can live with them," he said.
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