Factory farms are one of the leading causes of pollution in Illinois’ rivers and lakes, according to a group of environmental activists who called on the state to impose stricter regulations—and even a moratorium—on industrial livestock production.
“Clean water is critical to the environment, to public health, and to the quality of life in Illinois. Factory farms seriously threaten the health of our waterways,” said Lisa Nikodem, campaign director for Environment Illinois Research and Education Center.
Environment Illinois joined organic farmers Wednesday morning at the Heartland Café, located at 7000 N. Glenwood Ave. in Chicago, to put a spotlight on water pollution caused by the large-scale release of animal waste at concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), commonly called factory farms.
There have been at least 80 “serious” cases of factory farms polluting Illinois waterways in the past 12 years, according to the environmental advocacy organization. But because of poor tracking and weak regulations, activists suspect there have been many other instances of pollution from CAFOs that have gone unreported and were therefore never prosecuted.
“Illinois has one of the highest concentrations of CAFOs in the country and we have notoriously lax regulations,” said Nikodem.
For its part, the state is currently in the process of implementing new regulations and tougher pollution controls for the cattle, hog and chicken operations, which often house thousands of animals at a time.
After a two-year investigation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found in 2012 that Illinois was failing to protect waterways from CAFO pollutants. The Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) drafted new regulations and, after a 45-day public comment period, the new rules are currently under consideration by the Illinois General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) and are scheduled to be put into practice by the end of 2014.
If the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) does not increase oversight and change its existing CAFO rules, the state could lose its authority to administer the Clean Water Act.
While the draft rules are a “great first step,” according to Nikodem, the IPCB’s proposed regulations “still have a long way to go.”
“There are measures that these operations can take to prevent our waterways from being polluted … It’s not our goal to totally take down this industry, but I do think that we need a moratorium on new and expanded factory farms in our state,” she said, adding that Environment Illinois and its supporters submitted nearly 1,900 comments on the new regulations. Click through for more from Wednesday's press conference.
Almost all of the state's new rules pertain solely to large factory farms that must apply for a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, but a number of factory farms, including certain medium and small CAFOs, are not required to get a permit and can thus continue to operate with too few regulations, Nikodem said. A farm must apply for an NPDES permit if it discharges or proposes to discharge pollutants.
A factory farm is considered a large CAFO if the operation has at least 700 mature dairy cows, 2,500 swine that weigh at least 55 pounds or 30,000 chickens. Of the roughly 30,000 factory farms in Illinois, according to researchers' estimates, the EPA identifies 500 as large CAFOs, according to Environment Illinois.
“The argument, the canard that they put out there is that, well, ‘if you don’t (have factory farms), you won’t be able to feed the population.’ But that’s not proven,” said Tom Rosenfeld, owner of Earth First Farms, a Michigan-based organic apple orchard and vegetable farm.
“We shouldn’t just assume CAFOs are a good idea.”
To safeguard against pollution from all CAFOs, including those that operate without an NPDES permit, Environment Illinois has released policy recommendations for the IEPA’s draft regulations.
Environment Illinois would like to see the state require all factory farms with the potential to discharge waste into state waterways to obtain a permit; prohibit land-applying waste in wintertime, when frozen soil cannot absorb manure; increase the minimum setback between manure storage and surface water; require all CAFOs to register their location and size with the state; and ensure that the IEPA has adequate resources to routinely inspect factory farms.
Activists would also like to see a moratorium on new CAFOs and prohibit the expansion of existing farms.
Matt Vecchie, owner of Yaw-Ye Farms, a two-acre free-range pork operation in Grayslake, called his 30-animal farm “sustainable” because, with so few pigs, there is no need for a waste disposal operation. The animal’s waste serves as fertilizer.
“There are other ways to do this,” he said.
In 2009, Don Irlam, the owner of a swine finishing operation in Morgan County, allegedly released at least 31,000 gallons of livestock waste onto the ground when the manure pits at his 600-animal farm reached maximum capacity. The manure subsequently contaminated a cattle-watering pond owned by his neighbor, Steve Suttles. After the Illinois Department of Natural Resources determined that the pond was “a total loss with regard to aquatic life,” the Illinois Attorney General’s office took action against Irlam and he was ordered to cease waste discharge and remediate the damage.
“One of the inherent problems in these kinds of operations is that they’re producing waste at a level that’s just not sustainable,” said Nikodem. “It’s not realistic to expect that they can manage it or dispose of it safely.”