Protecting the Kankakee River Basin from CAFO Pollution

A Texas-based company has been given the go-ahead by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to build and operate a massive concentrated animal feeding operation (“CAFO”) in one of Indiana’s most sensitive environmental areas–the Kankakee River Basin, in the former Beaver Lake bed along Beaver Creek, and numerous other tributaries of the Kankakee River. HEC has brought a legal challenge to that IDEM decision. Here’s why:

The CAFO Seriously Threatens Environmentally Sensitive Areas

Beaver Lake was once Indiana’s largest freshwater lake before it was drained a century ago leaving behind a surficial aquifer (just below ground surface).  Most, if not all homes in the area are on well water that draw from this surficial aquifer making drinking water in the area extremely vulnerable to contamination from wastes that come in contact with the land. Immediately adjacent to the CAFO site is the ecologically sensitive Kankakee Sands Bison Habitat. Also nearby is the Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife area, Lake Village Elementary School and North Newton High School.

Despite the historical, cultural and environmental significance of the area, IDEM is allowing the CAFO to confine 4,350 dairy cows in three “production” buildings. The CAFO will generate more than 26 million gallons of waste annually—including urine, feces and contaminated wastewater from milk production. Putting this into perspective, this CAFO will produce as much raw sewage as that of a city with 715,000 people – that’s more than 50 times the amount of raw sewage produced by the human population of Newton County (14,000 people) where this CAFO is to be built. The CAFO’s waste will be collected and stored in a massive, outdoor waste lagoon that is nearly 3 times the size of a football field. Once the lagoon is full, the waste will be spread, untreated on nearby fields within the aquifer boundary and many are immediately adjacent to tributaries of the Kankakee River.

Poses a Major Threat to the Safety of Area Drinking Water

Animal waste contains high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen as well as pathogens like coli and parasites, which is why human (animal) waste is treated before it can be disposed of on land. When these pathogens contaminate drinking water they can cause gastrointestinal illnesses, kidney damage or failure, and in extreme cases, death. This is a real possibility in this instance because soil testing conducted within the footprint of both the manure lagoon and livestock buildings demonstrate that groundwater is “at or near soil surface” in some locations and “at or above soil surface” in others. That means if the waste lagoon were to overflow, the liner to crack/leach, or a spill were to occur in transporting the waste from the buildings to the lagoon then groundwater will be contaminated threatening the drinking water wells of area residents. Also concerning, there are three wells at the CAFO site that are within feet of the production buildings that directly expose groundwater to contamination and  IDEM approved the CAFO before completion of a water table level study and developing a groundwater monitoring plan. And, allowing the CAFO’s waste to be spread on fields within the aquifer boundary significantly threatens the drinking/well water of area residents. Finally, the CAFO will be built within feet of nearby drainage ditches even though the CFO Rule requires a 300 foot setback. With flooding like the area just experienced, contamination of these surface waters is a near certainty.

A Dangerous Threat to Air Quality

As livestock waste is collected in the manure lagoon it will decompose and release dangerous gases including hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, particulate matter, endotoxin, among others that are noxious and pose severe health risks. This is of particular concern given the close proximity of the CAFO to schools and outdoor recreation areas. Purdue University study of air emissions at a dairy CAFO in Indiana found ammonia emissions released at a rate of between 18 and 75 grams per day per cow. In other words, this diary CAFO with 4,300 cows will emit more than 600 pounds of ammonia into the air every day. These gases will be disbursed into the surrounding area in a number of ways: (1) the open air lagoons will allow perpetual off-gassing to occur; (2) when the collected waste slurry is spread on fields, emissions will be directly released; and (3) open-sided confinement buildings allow gases to escape. The resulting stench from these gasses can be unbearable, but even more concerning are the serious health effects they can create.

One of the most dangerous gasses produced, hydrogen sulfide, can be harmful even at low levels. It is a potent neurotoxin that can cause damage to the brain and nervous system. People exposed to concentrations of even 0.1-1 parts per million (ppm), display neurobehavioral dysfunction, including abnormal balance and delays in verbal recall. Its effects are irreversible and can also include skin rashes, seizures, comas, and even death. Ammonia is a noxious gas that also poses serious health risks. Ammonia has an acrid, repellant odor at levels above 0.7 ppm. It causes eye irritation beginning at 4 ppm and irritation of the nose and throat above 25 ppm. Ammonia can also trigger asthma attacks in some asthmatics, which is particularly concerning for children at the schools nearby.