Who Should Watch Big Farms?

  • Hog manure being injected into the ground and tilled under. The manure fertilizes the crops, but if too much is applied it can foul up waterways. (Photo by Mark Brush)

Big livestock operations can raise thousands of cows, chickens or pigs
under one roof. It helps keep the price of food lower. But neighbors
complain the government’s not doing a good enough job of monitoring the
pollution these farms produce. Rebecca Williams reports there’s a
debate heating up in several states over who should be regulating these
big farms:

Transcript

Big livestock operations can raise thousands of cows, chickens or pigs
under one roof. It helps keep the price of food lower. But neighbors
complain the government’s not doing a good enough job of monitoring the
pollution these farms produce. Rebecca Williams reports there’s a
debate heating up in several states over who should be regulating these
big farms:


The days of small farms with different kinds of livestock grazing in
the pasture are fading from the landscape.


They’re being replaced by farms that specialize in one kind of animal –
and raise thousands of them. They’re called concentrated animal
feeding operations, or CAFOs.


There are battles in several states right now over who should be keeping an eye
on the CAFOs. Usually, the state departments of environmental
protection have power under the federal Clean Water Act to enforce laws
and issue permits. But in the Midwest, in states such as Ohio and
Michigan, and in the West, in states such as Oregon and Idaho, they either have transferred or are working to transfer oversight power to the state agriculture departments – and get U.S. EPA approval.


Jerry Van Woerkom is a Republican state senator in Michigan. Right
now, the state Department of Environmental Quality – or DEQ – has the
oversight powers. But Senator Van Woerkom is sponsoring a package of
bills that would put most of the state’s big livestock farms under the
Department of Agriculture:


“Those people tend to be supportive and come with the attitude of we’re
going to try to work together to solve this problem. Whereas when they
work with the DEQ the attitude is more like we’re coming with a
hammer and if we find anything you’ve done that’s out of line, we’re
going to wop you with it.”


The CAFOs are in the spotlight because they can produce tens of
thousands of gallons of urine and manure each day. That liquefied
manure is eventually spread onto farm fields.


The Environmental Protection Agency says that waste can wash from
fields into streams and creeks. That can cause fish kills. Animal
waste has also gotten into drinking water and made people sick.


Lynn Henning runs a small farm. She says there are 13 CAFOs within a
10 mile radius of her Michigan farmhouse. She says the manure odors
are overwhelming:


“We can’t hang laundry when the emissions are in the air. We have
severe fly outbreaks. We’ve had family farmers that have been diagnosed with hydrogen
sulfide poisoning from emissions from the CAFOs.”


Henning says the current oversight system is weak. She says the
Department of Environmental Quality doesn’t have enough funding to
monitor the CAFOs. So that job often falls to residents like her. She
says putting the Department of Agriculture in charge of oversight would
make the problems even worse:


“The MDA has no enforcement authority and they promote agriculture in
Michigan. It’s like putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop.
You can’t give authority to punish to an agency that’s promoting.”


But it could become a wider trend if the states that are proposing the
switch now actually make it happen.


Karla Raettig is an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project.
It’s a group that’s been critical of weakening environmental laws.
She’s been tracking trends in enforcement of livestock farms:


“I think the Farm Bureau and other really large industry advocates are
seeing a chance to get regulation that is perhaps more cooperative,
less regulatory and less on the enforcement side. It isn’t totally
nefarious but I think it could have outcomes that are not anticipated.”


Raettig says you have to wonder what will happen without the threat of
enforcement from an environmental agency.


But Senator Jerry Van Woerkom from Michigan argues that farmers are
more likely to do the right thing if they’re overseen by a friendlier
agency, as he proposes:


“I mean you’re not able to cover up problems that happen, it gets in
the newspaper, people know when problems happen. But I believe that the
agriculture department will work with people, especially if people are
getting a bad reputation. I think they will work with them and if
those people do get out of line, it’s back to the DEQ.”


Environmentalists and small farmers are worried about the idea of
states handing off oversight of CAFOs… from their environmental
watchdog agencies to their agencies in charge of promoting the business
of agriculture.


For the Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links

Saving Rattlesnakes From Development

  • Veterinarian Dr. Tara Harrison operates on an Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake to implant a radio transmitter for tracking in the wild. (Photo by Chris McCarus)

The Eastern Massassauga Rattlesnake used to be found all over the Midwest. Now there’s only one state where the population is fairly healthy, but even there it’s threatened by rapid development. A group of scientists is trying to protect the snake before all of its habitat is gone.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris McCarus reports:

Transcript

The Eastern Eastern Massassauga Rattlesnake used to be found all over the Midwest. Now there’s only one state where the population is fairly healthy. But even there, it’s threatened by rapid development. A group of scientists is trying to protect the snake before all of its habitat is gone. The GLRC’s Chris McCarus reports:


(Sound of snake rattling)


A team of veterinarians and researchers is pulling an Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake from a bag. They put the snake on an operating table. Then the doctor snips open the skin.


“Okay, so I’m into the abdominal cavity.”


She’s putting a radio transmitter the size of a AA battery into the snake’s belly. This will allow them to track the snake’s movement in the wild for the next two years.
Kristin Wildman is a graduate student at Michigan State University. She catches and tracks the snakes. She’s involved in a project with federal, state and university biologists. They’re trying to protect the Massasauga.


She thinks of the snakes as being much like herself. She identifies with their personalities. Wildman says these snakes are just modest. They don’t like to attract attention and don’t like to hurt anybody.


“Like with this snake, she’s one of the bitier snakes I have in this study. And she only strikes the tongs – the snake tongs – because I’m grabbing her with the snake tongs. It just kind of gives you an idea. They don’t really strike unless you’re messing with them, unless they have a really good reason to, or unless they’re harassed enough that they feel they need to.”


Although it would rather avoid you, if you’re bitten by a Massasauga Rattler, its venom can kill you.


But it can’t fight people destroying its habitat.


Mike DeCapita is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He and other experts say rapid development is the snake’s biggest enemy. It’s not only destroying the snake’s habitat, it’s also destroying other wildlife habitat.


“The Massasauga is sort of an indicator species or a keystone species; perhaps that if we adjust so that we protect the needs of the Massasauga then all those species that use that same type of habitat also are protected.”


The onslaught of development has made the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake a candidate for the endangered species list, though it’s not on the list yet.


(Sound of hammering and cement mixing)


A new subdivision is being built in suburban Detroit. It’s just beyond the gate of a park where the research team came to study Massasauga habitat.


(Sound of people walking on a trail and talking)


Andy Hertz works for the State Department of Environmental Quality. He has the authority to refuse a building permit to anyone who could hurt Massasaugas.


“This is part of an effort of making us more aware of the habitat the Massasauga’s found in, so hopefully, we can direct developers and landowners to stay away from these more sensitive areas.”


In the winter, the Massasauga joins the frogs and turtles. They hibernate in marshes about two feet underground. Then, in spring and summer, they’ll seek higher ground for feeding. They can’t survive if they can’t move back and forth between their summer and wintering grounds. The research team has figured out this rule for minimizing damage to the snake’s habitat: don’t tamper with wetlands in winter nor the uplands in summer.


The team is focusing on Michigan to see why the population is the healthiest there. Then perhaps they can understand how to protect the rattlers in the rest of the Midwest where they’re nearly wiped out.


While she’s looking for more snakes, graduate student Kristin Wildman laughs about how a woman once called her to take a Massasauga away from the side of her house.


“We said, ‘Well, we’ll come out and we’ll move it for you.’ And we usually just move it down into the nearest wetland, down the hill. We pull in and she lives on Rattlesnake Drive. I didn’t expect to move out here and have all these rattlesnakes and stuff. It’s like, you live on Rattlesnake Drive. It’s called that for a reason.”


Wildman says when people come into conflict with wildlife, the wildlife almost always loses. If the Massasauga Rattler is going to survive it will take constant attention from all kinds of experts. They’ll have to stop developers from building over the snake’s habitat and threatening its existence.


For the GLRC, I’m Chris McCarus.

Related Links

How Long Do You Keep a Polluting Heap?

  • Motor oil dripping from cars can add up and end up contaminating waterways and sediments. (Photo by Brandon Blinkenberg)

Industries and companies get labeled as
“polluters.” But what do you do when you find out you’re a pretty big polluter yourself… and you find out it’s going to cost you a lot of money to fix the
problem? As part of the series, “Your Choice; Your
Planet,” the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rebecca
Williams finds herself in that dilemma:

Transcript

Industries and companies get labeled as “polluters.” But what do you do when you find out you’re a pretty big polluter yourself… and you find out it’s going to cost you a lot of money to fix the problem? As part of the series, “Your Choice; Your Planet,” the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rebecca Williams finds herself in that dilemma:


(sound of car starting)


This is my ‘89 Toyota Camry. It has 188,000 miles on it. Pieces of
plastic trim fly off on the highway, and I have to climb in from the
backseat when my door gets frozen in the winter. But I got it for free, I get good gas mileage, and my insurance is cheap. But now, it’s leaking oil – lots of oil. I knew it was bad when I started
pouring in a quart of oil every other week.


I thought I’d better take it in to the shop.


(sound of car shop)


My mechanic, Walt Hayes, didn’t exactly have good news for me.


“You know, you’re probably leaking about 80% of that, just from experience, I’d say
you’re burning 20% and leaking 80%.”


Walt says the rear main seal is leaking, and the oil’s just dripping
straight to the ground. Walt tells me the seal costs 25 dollars, but he’d
have to take the transmission out to get to the seal. That means I’d be
paying him 650 dollars.


650 bucks to fix an oil leak, when no one would steal my car’s radio. There’s no way. Obviously, it’s cheaper to spend two dollars on each quart of oil, than to fix the seal.


“Right – what else is going to break, you know? You might fix the rear main
seal, and your transmission might go out next week or something. Your car,
because of its age, is on the edge all the time. So to invest in a 25 dollar seal, spending a lot of money for labor, almost doesn’t make sense on an
older car.”


That’s my mechanic telling me not to fix my car. In fact, he says he’s seen
plenty of people driving even older Toyotas, and he says my engine will
probably hold out a while longer. But now I can’t stop thinking about the
quarts of oil I’m slowly dripping all over town.


I need someone to tell me: is my one leaky car really all that bad? Ralph
Reznick works with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. He
spends his time trying to get polluters to change their behavior.


“That’s a lot for an old car. If you were the only car in the parking lot,
that wouldn’t be very much. But the fact is, there’s a lot of cars just
like yours that are doing the same thing.”


Reznick says the oil and antifreeze and other things that leak from and fall
off cars like mine add up.


“The accumulative impact of your car and other cars, by hitting the
pavement, and washing off the pavement into the waterways, is a very large
impact. It’s one of the largest sources of pollution we’re dealing with
today.”


Reznick says even just a quart of oil can pollute thousands of gallons of
water. And he says toxins in oil can build up in sediment at the bottom of
rivers and lakes. That can be bad news for aquatic animals and plants.
There’s no question – he wants me to fix the leak.


But I am NOT pouring 650 bucks into this car when the only thing it has going
for it is that it’s saving me money. So I can either keep driving it, and
feel pretty guilty, or I can scrap it and get a new car.


But it does take a lot of steel and plastic and aluminum to make a new car.
Maybe I’m doing something right for the environment by driving a car that’s
already got that stuff invested in it.


I went to the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan
and talked to Greg Keoleian. He’s done studies on how many years it makes
sense to keep a car. He says if you look at personal costs, and the energy
that goes into a making a midsize car, it makes sense to hang onto it for a
long time… like 16 years.


No problem there – I finally did something right!


Well, sort of.


“In your case, from an emissions point of view, you should definitely
replace your vehicle. It turns out that a small fraction of vehicles are
really contributing to a lot of the local air pollution. Older vehicles
tend to be more polluting, and you would definitely benefit the environment
by retiring your vehicle.”


Keoleian says if I get a newer car, it won’t be leaking oil, and it won’t
putting out nearly as much nitrogen oxide and other chemicals that lead to
smog. Oh yeah, he also says I really need to start looking today.


And so doing the right thing for the environment is going to cost me money.
There’s no way around that. The more I think about my rusty old car, the
more I notice all the OTHER old heaps on the road. Maybe all of you are a
bit like me, hoping to make it through just one more winter without car
payments.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links

Creating Particle Pollution Warning System

  • Smokestacks, diesel engines, and a number of other things cause particulate emissions, which can create some negative health effects, and aggravate existing health problems. (Photo by Kenn Kiser)

In the summer, local weather forecasts often
include information about dangerous ozone levels.
But scientists are learning more and more about
another type of pollution that can reach harmful
levels even in the winter months. And as the Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sarah Hulett reports… we
might be hearing more about this type of pollution in
our daily weather reports:

Transcript

In the summer, local weather forecasts often include information about dangerous ozone levels. But scientists are learning more and more about another type of pollution that can reach harmful levels even in the winter months. And as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sarah Hulett reports, we might be hearing more about this type of pollution in our daily weather reports:


Parts of the region recently reached “code red” for poor air quality. And
that had some people perplexed. Warnings about dangerous levels of ozone are
frequent on hot summer days, especially in urban areas. But this was the
middle of winter.


The warnings were for high levels of tiny particles that federal regulators
only recently began monitoring. They’re spewn from diesel engines,
factories, power plants, and fireplaces. Air monitors in Michigan,
Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Indiana recently registered unhealthy levels of
these particles – some of them for a few days straight.


Jim Haywood says the problem was an unusual weather event for this time of
year. Haywood is a meteorologist with the Michigan Department of
Environmental Quality. He says a high pressure system moved very slowly over
the Great Lakes region for several days. When you get high pressure, the air
below sinks, generating a layer of warm air that acts like a lid.


“So that warm air that was sinking effectively stops at a few hundred feet
from the surface of the ground. It acts like a cap. It does not let any of
the pollutants that are released at the surface pop up through that cap.”


So all the pollutants that would have gotten picked up and diluted by the
wind instead just hung out for days – building up, and reflecting sunlight
to create haze.


Eventually, a cold front pushed the high pressure system out of the way, and
took the pollution with it. But what about those few days when the Environmental Protection Agency was warning about unhealthy levels of particulate pollution? For people with
heart or lung disease, agency health officials say short-term episodes can
lead to asthma attacks or even heart attacks. And they say healthy children
and adults can experience throat and lung irritation.


Susan Stone is an environmental health scientist with EPA. She says
particle pollution warnings could soon become a staple of the daily weather
report – much like the familiar summer ozone warnings.


“With ozone, we have the network in place to be able to deliver those
forcasts, people are used to hearing that on TV, and we are working to
provide that same level of coverage for particle pollution.”


Stone says EPA is rolling out a new program called Enviro-Flash
nationwide. It sends real-time air quality information to people’s email
accounts or pagers. EPA is offering the service through state
environmental agencies. And beginning in 2010, areas that register
unacceptable levels of particle pollution will be required to clean up their
air.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Sarah Hulett.

Related Links

‘ODOR PATROL’ SNIFFS OUT POLLUTION

The world’s largest automaker is doing something it’s never done before. General Motors is recruiting people who live near its assembly plants to help the company find ways to pollute less. But as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner reports, some environmentalists say GM’s efforts are missing the point:

Transcript

The world’s largest automaker is doing something it’s never done before. General Motors is
recruiting people who live near its assembly plants to help the company find ways to pollute less.
But as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner reports, some environmentalists say GM’s
efforts are missing the point.


The city of Lansing, Michigan is the car Capital of North America, producing nearly a
half-a-million Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, Chevrolets and Cadillacs every year. Later this year,
General Motors adds another car to its Lansing lineup – a brand-new Chevy roadster. But it
almost didn’t happen.


Environmentalists threatened legal action to block production because they weren’t satisfied with
the factory’s air pollution controls.


Steve Tomaszewski is General Motors’ Lansing environmental manager.


“People were concerned, everyone was concerned. There was a breakdown of communications,
on all parties.”


The disagreement was over air pollution from one of GM’s plants. Those emissions were due to
nearly double under a new state air quality permit.


Some Lansing residents and two state environmental groups threatened to appeal that new permit
if GM didn’t agree to use better pollution controls. The two sides made their cases in the local
papers and eventually struck a deal.


Again, GM’s Steve Tomaszewski.


“We’ve come a long way, a long way, from where we started in the process. You know, we sit
down and we know more about people’s families other than just concentrating, on you know, the
industrial odor issues, which is great.”


General Motors agreed to join a new Air Quality Task Force. It’s made up of GM engineers,
environmental officials and people who live near the plants. GM also brought in an odor expert to
train the group to sniff out emissions from the plants’ paint shops. This “odor patrol” then files
reports to a new Web site.


Marci Alling is part of the group.


“They kind of calibrated our noses, that’s about the best way to describe it to kind of get us all
where we are more or less reporting the same levels of odor.”


Alling and her husband have lived near GM factories for 10 years. Often, whether they spend
time in their backyard depends on which way the wind blows. In certain weather conditions,
typically on hot, sticky days, a paint-like smell from the plants drifts through their neighborhood.
They’ve wondered whether the odors are making them sick.


State officials say the odors might be annoying, but recent studies found people who live near the
plants are not at a greater risk of cancer or other illnesses.


GM’s Steve Tomaszewski says the odor patrol will help the automaker better monitor emissions.


“We know we can’t be completely odor free. We strive to do our best. But this information, what
we’ll do is be able to go back and it’s more real time. You’re able to link it to the day and the time,
and we’re able to go back into the process to see what’s happening.”


But environmental groups say General Motors should be doing more to reduce pollution in the
first place, instead of tracking emissions after they become a problem.


James Clift of the Michigan Environmental Council says technology is available to make the
painting process cleaner. But he claims GM isn’t using it.


“If what you need is pollution control equipment and it’s not there, the odors may continue. We
might know better what they are, but if the permit doesn’t require them, it doesn’t matter. Now,
the department always has the ability to bring what they call an odor violation against General
Motors. In my mind, they’ve received lots of complaints over the years, but the DEQ has never
acted and actually issued a violation on odors.”


But the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality says it has issued odor violations against
General Motors. GM was ordered to raise its smokestacks in Lansing a couple of years ago
because of a violation. And GM says it recently spent 4-million-dollars on new painting
technology that greatly cuts down on pollution.


Now, General Motors is counting on its neighbors and their noses to help the company improve
air quality near its factories. GM says the project could lead to better pollution controls at plants
throughout the country, including more than 40 in the Great Lakes region.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Erin Toner.

Is Race Behind Effort to Block Development?

The battle of the Humbug Marsh is being fought just south of Detroit.
Developers have said they want to build upscale homes near the last stretch
of undeveloped wetland on the U-S side of the Detroit River.
Environmentalists are lobbying to defeat the deal. But developers say race
is the real reason for opposition to the project. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Jerome Vaughn has more:

The Fate of Slant Drilling

Far below the bottom of the Great Lakes, valuable pockets of oil and
gas sit waiting to be tapped. But laws prohibit offshore drilling. So
for the last twenty years, oil companies have been using another method
to get to the deposits; it’s called directional or slant-drilling. Up
until this point, there hasn’t been much opposition. But now a number
of bills are pending that could change oil and gas development beneath
the lakes. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Wendy Nelson reports:

Mining Endangers Sand Dunes

The dunes around Lake Michigan draw millions of visitors each year. But
the dunes are more than just a tourist attraction: the sand is a
valuable commodity in manufacturing. And sand dune mining has been
going on since the turn of the century. Today, dunes in Illinois and
Wisconsin are protected since they fall within state park boundaries.
There are some small mining operations in some of Indiana’s dunes, but
by far, most sand dune mining happens in Michigan. The state’s had a
law in place for more than twenty years to regulate the mining… But a
new report alleges that the law isn’t working. And the dunes are slowly
vanishing. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Wendy Nelson reports: