(This piece was originally published on October 29, 2018 by the Northwest Indiana Times.)

The Hoosier Environmental Council has asked state environmental regulators to extend the public comment period for a controversial large-scale organic dairy proposal near Lake Village and schedule an information meeting.

The nonprofit, which is representing several residents opposed to the proposed operation, said Natural Prairie Dairy’s latest permit application is long and complex and “at odds with the ever-changing claims” the company has made during the last two years.

Kim Ferraro, senior staff attorney for the Hoosier Environmental Council, said there is significant concern about the proposal among community members “for very good reason.” She pointed to the area’s surficial aquifer and seasonal flooding, and accused the dairy of promising to use an unproven technology to process waste as a way of allaying residents’ fears about contamination of their drinking water.*

The De Jong family, owners of the Texas-based dairy company, have proposed confined animal feeding operation housing 4,250 dairy cows and 100 dairy calves at its 2,500-acre property at 4500 W. County Road 400 North, according a new permit application submitted recently to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

“Our family will trust the legal and regulatory process as the proper forum to address the immense benefits of our certified organic farm, including our innovative green technology that converts manure into clean water and organic fertilizer,” said Will De Jong, the Newton County farm manager. “With our long tradition of successful organic farming —where we don’t use synthetic pesticides, herbicides — we believe we have complied with all of IDEM’s regulations within our detailed 279-page permit application. We look forward to cooperating in any way required during IDEM’s very thorough, rigorous review process.”

The comment period began Oct. 12 and is currently set to close Nov. 15.

A 60-day extension will allow more time for the Hoosier Environmental Council’s experts to review the application and offer meaningful comments, Ferraro said. An informational meeting will give residents an opportunity to learn how IDEM understands the dairy’s latest proposal, she said.

“This extremely short comment period with minimal notification that we are trying to extend is just one of many examples of how desperately Indiana’s factory farming permitting procedures are in incredible need of improvement, and how comprehensive CAFO reform, like was introduced last session, is so very needed in this state,” a Hoosier Environmental Council news release said.

The De Jongs’ farm sits in the bed of the former Beaver Lake, which was drained from 1871 to 1880 as the Beaver Lake ditch was constructed. The ditch feeds into the Kankakee River, sometimes referred to as “the Everglades of the North” because it was home to one of the largest concentrations of wildlife in the world before it was drained and straightened to serve agricultural purposes.

Several of the area’s remaining natural areas, including The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands property and Willow Slough Indiana Fish and Wildlife Area, are nearby.

Waste from the dairy could create serious health risks for residents, whose drinking water from wells is fed by the area’s superficial aquifer, Ferraro said. Seasonal flooding also affects the site, and environmental contamination also has been a concern.

Ferraro accused the dairy of attempting to mislead residents when it says it has been using organic farming methods to grow alfalfa and various grasses at the site.

“What’s missing there is, under the organic rules, the cows — 4,000 plus cows — have to be out at pasture at least 180 days a year,” she said.

A traditional crop farmer may apply conventional pesticides and fertilizer twice a year during the growing season, but those cows will be supplying pathogens such as E. coli to the fields at least 180 days a year, she said.

“Cows are animals just like humans,” she said. “Human waste has bad stuff in it, which is why our waste has to go to a wastewater treatment plant and there are stringent regulations for how we deal with human waste.”

Natural Prairie Dairy has suggested using three different technologies to process manure at different times, records show. Its latest application includes plans to use a Janicki Bioenergy advanced vapor recompression unit, which separates waste to produce clean water, dried solids and a concentrated ammonia fertilizer.

De Jong has said the company plans to install and fully test the technology at scale at its farm in Texas before using it in Newton County.

Ferraro said she’s not sure, after briefly reviewing the dairy’s latest application, when — if ever — the technology will be installed or if it will be effective.

“They’re relying on the suggestion of this technology to allay everyone’s concerns,” Ferraro said.

* Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct a description of the aquifer in the area of the proposed dairy. It is a surficial aquifer. The Times regrets the error.

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