Editorial: Farm implement

(This piece was originally published on January 24, 2019 by the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.)

Bill would protect CAFOs’ neighbors

Indiana is among the top 10 states in pork, chicken and egg production and ranks high in a range of other agricultural commodities. As the factory farms responsible for most of that bounteous yield continue to grow, we need tougher rules to prevent waste from those facilities from fouling the water and air. A bill to establish such rules is scheduled for a hearing in a legislative committee next month.

Concern about these increasingly large facilities isn’t save-the-planet environmental idealism. Nor is it driven by lack of respect for farming traditions or lack of appreciation for the essential role farm products play in all our lives. This is about preventing the kind of close-by, in-your-face pollution issues that can make nearby homes unlivable and cause property values to plummet.

It’s about keeping facilities whose animals produce immense amounts of waste from building or expanding too close to neighborhoods or other institutions or businesses. And it’s about insisting these megafarms have properly designed ventilation systems to control odors and properly maintained and regularly inspected holding ponds to prevent groundwater, well water and lake and stream contamination. In Indiana, the “right to farm” is guaranteed by state law. But residents who share Indiana’s rich rural spaces with these plus-sized factory farms also have a right to be free from fouled water and noxious air.

Farms which comprise 300 or more cattle, or 600 or more swine or sheep, or 30,000 or more chickens, turkeys or ducks, are classified as confined feeding operations. Their big siblings, called concentrated animal feeding operations, may have, for instance, 700 or more mature dairy cows, 10,000 or more sheep or lambs, or 55,000 or more turkeys.

According to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, there are 1,815 CFOs within the state, of which 796 are CAFO-sized. Though the number of farms of all sizes has diminished in recent years, individual CAFOs seem to be growing ever larger. Five years ago, according to Kim Ferraro, agricultural policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council, the average CAFO had about 5,000 hogs; today, it’s about 10,000. All that adds up to big environmental-management challenges: Indiana’s livestock produce as much untreated waste as 87 million people – 14 times the state’s population.

IDEM has very limited ability to see these big facilities are properly sited and constructed or that these massive amounts of potential contaminants are handled properly. In the seven years its current regulations have been in effect, for instance, the department has not successfully denied a single application for a new CAFO, Ferraro said. Earlier this month, IDEM approved a request to build an organic dairy farm in Newton County. Opponents fear the farm, which will house 4,350 cattle, could pollute wells that supply drinking water to as many as 300 homes and contaminate the nearby Kankakee River.

Environmental advocates tried but failed last year to get a hearing for a bill that would beef up state regulations and enforcement.

A new version of that measure, House Bill 1378, has been introduced by Republican Rep. Thomas Saunders of Lewisville and Democratic Rep. Carey Hamilton of Indianapolis. The bill, which Ferraro said has been modified to meet some of the objections legislators expressed last session, has been assigned to the House Committee on Environmental Affairs, where it is expected to be discussed Feb. 13.

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