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Farmer Turned Activist Fights Manure-Spreading Faults

  • Farmer turned activist fights manure-spreading faults
    Michigander's grassroots effort tracks megafarms
    By Tina Lam
    Detroit Free Press, April 19, 2010
    Straight to the Source

CLAYTON -- Since 2000, Lynn Henning has watched a dozen huge dairy and hog farms mushroom in her rural area west of Adrian. A farmer herself, she was disturbed by the size of the operations and the massive amounts of untreated waste they produced. Runoff from untreated manure began to taint nearby creeks and foul the air with a putrid stench.

Henning, 52, began testing water herself to track discharges from the farms into local waters. She has been threatened and sued and had dead animals dumped on her porch. But her tireless detective work has contributed to the state closing one factory farm and fining others more than $400,000 for 1,077 violations since 2000.

For her efforts, Henning is to receive the 2010 Goldman Environmental Prize today, often described as the Nobel Prize for environmental work. It's given annually to one person on each continent.

For Henning, it's a surprising Cinderella moment.

Michigan has more than 200 concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs, defined as those with more than 700 cows, 2,500 hogs or 10,000 poultry. They are required to have permits from the state designed to keep manure out of state waters. The state can fine them for permit violations.

Giant farms near Henning's farm in Lenawee County have been cited for more than 1,000 violations in the past decade.

The Michigan Farm Bureau, which often has been at odds with Henning and environmental groups over regulation of megafarms, declined to comment on Henning's prize and said individual farms also declined to comment.

"Lynn and the farm community share many of the same environmental values and goals, but differ in their opinions about how to achieve them," said bureau spokeswoman Jill Corrin.

The bureau, with other partners, has a state-funded program that works with cooperating farms of all sizes to help them comply with environmental laws and minimize pollution.

The farms are home to 20,000 cows and produce as much waste as a city of 200,000 people. Waste from the barns where the animals live -- a stew that includes antibiotics, blood from births and cleaning solvents -- is washed into lagoons, where it sits until it can be pumped into trucks and spread on fields. When too much manure is applied to fields, it forms puddles that run off into streams.

Heavy rain, spills and leaking or improperly built lagoons also produce runoff into local creeks, which run into Lake Erie. Scientists have said phosphorus in the runoff may contribute to toxic algae blooms and an oxygen-starved zone in the lake, which kills fish and other aquatic life.

Many of the megafarm violations have been for sending manure runoff into nearby waters, such as Bean and Durfee creeks, which are on the state's impaired waters list because of the runoff. "There's no cleanup, no warning to towns downstream whose drinking water might be affected," Henning said.

Besides the overpowering stench, the manure can emit ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, which can cause skin, lung and eye irritations as well as damage to the nervous system, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In summer, when manure spreading is heaviest, people living nearby can't hang their laundry outside, have picnics or sleep with their windows open.

Janet Kauffman of Hudson, who has written "Trespassing: Dirt Stories and Field Notes" (Wayne State University, $18.85), a book about living near CAFOs, said she sometimes has to put towels in the gaps of the doors of her old farmhouse to keep the stench out, and there are days when she can't mow the lawn or walk outside because of it.


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