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Farms near Lake Erie get millions

Report: Waste-producing operations receive funds despite algae fears

Between 2008 and 2015, concentrated animal feeding operations in the western Lake Erie watershed have received more than $16.8 million in direct payments, cost-shares, and other subsidies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to a report issued earlier this month by activist groups tracking the issue.

The Less=More Coalition said in its Nov. 19 report, Follow the Manure: Factory Farms and the Lake Erie Algae Crisis, that millions of taxpayer dollars continued to be disbursed even as concerns about algal toxins rose following the 2014 Toledo water crisis.

The August, 2014 crisis during which more than 500,000 Toledo water customers were without drinkable water for three days heightened awareness of the many algae-forming phosphorus releases into western Lake Erie’s tributaries.

The 2015 bloom is now considered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as the largest on record for biomass, but not for toxins. The size of a bloom does not necessarily correlate to its toxicity. 

Scientists have been trying to solve the lake’s chronic algae problems since they re-emerged in 1995 after a two-decade absence.

In conjunction with its new report, the Less=More Coalition, in conjunction with the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club, has released an interactive online map that shows the locations of 146 industrial CAFOs within the western Lake Erie watershed, housing a collective 12 million animals that produce more than 630 million gallons of waste annually.

See http://www.sierraclub.org/michigan/follow-manure-factory-farms-and-lake-erie-algal-crisis.

Included on that page is a map that shows compliance history and government payments since 2008 for many counties in the watershed, especially Lenawee and Hillsdale counties in southern Michigan.

Although it is not known how much of that manure spills from lagoons or leaches into waterways after being applied to crop fields as fertilizer, activists contend there are enormous risks managing that amount of waste and that it must be done responsibly to protect one of the world’s largest sources of fresh drinking water.

Two-time Toledo mayoral candidate and former councilman Mike Ferner said in a Nov. 20 email to Toledo Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson and current council members he was stunned by the recent growth in that industry, especially with all of the attention manure-management and phosphorus in general has received in recent years.

He said in his email there are “twice as many factory farms in our watershed as I had stated in the past, which was based on 2012 numbers.”

Mr. Ferner is part of a movement headed by Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper founder Sandy Bihn to get the watershed declared “impaired” by the federal government, similar to what President Obama did with several states and the District of Columbia for the Chesapeake Bay.

That, supporters have said, would make the western Lake Erie watershed eligible for more federal grant money to fingerprint all sources of pollution and put the region on a “pollution diet,” meaning certain farms and other businesses could face more restrictions to collectively address phosphorus releases.

“Your silence is becoming deafening,” Mr. Ferner told public officials in his email.

The Ohio EPA has said it has no plans to seek the designation because it fears the label of impairment would be detrimental to business.

Scientists such as Jeff Reutter, Ohio Sea Grant and Ohio Stone Lab adviser, have said at least two-thirds of the phosphorus comes from agriculture. Some within the agriculture industry have said as much as 80 percent.

Manure contains dissolved phosphorus, the most bio-available form of phosphorus for algae growth and the one scientists are most concerned about. But nobody knows how much of the problem to attribute to CAFOs. The new report documents CAFOs in the watershed that have been fined for illegal waste discharges.

“While agricultural runoff has been identified as a major contributor to the growth of Lake Erie algae blooms, no one has connected the dots between the problem and federal subsidies before,” Gail Philbin, Michigan Sierra Club director, said. “This report is a portrait of a watershed inundated by waste and taxpayer money to fix it, but with nothing much to show for it after many years.”

Lynn Henning, a Lenawee County farmer who won the world’s top environmental prize for grassroots activism in 2010, the Goldman Environmental Prize for North America, has been tracking the issue for years for the Michigan Sierra Club and the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, a national group based in Molalla, Ore.

She said the deterioration of a watershed “is proof that no amount of money can create a healthy, safe and sustainable CAFO.”

“Instead of slowing or reversing the pollution levels, the subsidies seem to only deepen and accelerate the contamination crisis,” Ms. Henning said.

The western Lake Erie watershed covers portions of Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. Included in it are Maumee River, Lake Erie’s largest tributary, and other major waterways, including Michigan’s River Raisin. Ohio has the largest land area in the watershed, with 57 CAFOs generating the most manure, the report said.

“CAFO owners and those who should be regulating them tell you everything is being done to protect our land, water, natural resources and public health,” Ms. Henning said. “This report says otherwise.”

The report can be found at http://www.sierraclub.org/michigan/lessmore-reports.

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

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