Factory Farms – Air Pollution

  • This dairy is known as a "Confined Animal Feeding Operation" or CAFO. It will soon hold 1,500 dairy cows. The animals are kept indoors and are milked three times a day. (Photo by Mark Brush)

The way milk is produced has changed. A lot of
dairy farms are much bigger and more efficient. They’re
often called factory farms. Mark Brush reports, neighbors
of these farms say they’re paying a high price for the cheap
dairy products on your store shelves:


The way milk is produced has changed. A lot of
dairy farms are much bigger and more efficient. They’re
often called factory farms. Mark Brush reports, neighbors
of these farms say they’re paying a high price for the cheap
dairy products on your store shelves:

More than 50 cows trudge single file into this big, new building. There’s a bright
white tile floor and lots of light. The animals are herded into individual metal stalls. The
gates close over their heads, kind of like how the bar comes over you’re head when
you get on a rollercoaster. At the other end of the cow, workers insert its udders into
suction cups – and the milking starts:

“They’re milked three times a day – then they go back to the free-stall barn, so we’re
currently milking 1,000 cows.”

That’s Mark van de Heijning. He runs this dairy along with his family. They moved
here from Belgium. And they started milking their cows last year. They just built
another facility – and soon they’ll have 1,500 cows. van de
Heijning says back home in Belgium they had a small dairy farm, but wanted to

“But in Belgium the land is expensive and there was a quota system so its expensive
to expand there, and there are already a lot of people so that’s why we moved over here.”

It’s a fairly common story. Farmers from Belgium and the Netherlands move here to
build huge livestock operations – operations that would be too costly to run in

van de Heijning says they produce more than 8,000
gallons of milk per day. But that’s not all they produce. The cows also make more
that 10,000 gallons of manure a day. And it’s the manure that concerns people most
living around this dairy in northwest Ohio.

The manure is held in huge lagoons out back and eventually it’s spread onto
nearby farm fields. It smells. On some days the smell is intense. Some of the
people who live around these fields say the new mega-dairy has made life pretty

“I just live a quarter of a mile east of them and wind the wind blows it’s bad.”

“Regular cow manure, when they used to clean the barn – it stunk. But it was a
different… this is sometimes a really vile… like bleach or medicine in it.”

“It just sometimes takes your breath away. One day I tried to work in the garden and
within probably 10 or 15 minutes I was so nauseated I thought I was going to
throw up.”

Dub Heilman, Judy Emmitt, and Jane Phillips have lived in this rural community all of
their lives. None of them had experienced the sharp smells until the dairy began
operating last year. With the operation expanding, Judy Emmitt says she fears the
problems will only get worse:

“I mean we’re all getting older and we’ve already had health issues – how’s
this going to affect us? It’s scary – I mean sometimes it’s a scary feeling – what’s this
going to do to us?”

Exactly what the foul air does to people’s health is debated. The van de Heijnings
think it’s much ado about nothing. But health experts are concerned about a couple
of chemicals generated by the stored manure: hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. Two
studies have found that people living near these mega farms report more
headaches, respiratory problems, nausea, burning eyes, and depression.

The US Environmental Protection Agency regulates hydrogen sulfide and requires reports for ammonia releases from industries,but not for farms. The EPA says it’s looking into the problem with a new, two year
study. But the WAY the study was set up has angered a lot of people. The agency struck a deal with more than 2,000 livestock producers. These
producers represent around 14,000 individual farms. All of them will get
immunity from prosecution for breaking air pollution laws. Each of the producers
paid a small fine, and in exchange, the EPA will study air emissions on 24
of the farms.

The study just started. And it will be three and half years before the EPA makes any
decisions. Jon Scholl is with the EPA. He says right now, if neighbors have any
problems, unless they can prove imminent danger, they shouldn’t look to the EPA
for help. They should call their state agency:

“In terms of anything concerns that they would want to seek redress for at this
current time, EPA certainly encourages residents impacted by those operations to work with their respective state agencies.”

The neighbors we talked to say they’ve tried contacting the state agency responsible
for overseeing these mega-farms. But they were told there’s nothing the agency
could do.

Jane Phillips says the EPA study is just a delay tactic:

“The science is already there. There’s no reason for this study. And I think, you
know, no matter what the science says somebody is gonna dispute it and there’s going to have to be another study, and it’s just
gonna go on and on and on.”

“Farm Bureau will dispute it and they’ll just keep the whole mess goin’ and I don’t
think it’ll end.”

The van de Heijning’s dairy operation is one of the livestock farms that was granted
immunity by the EPA. Mark van de Heinjing says he’s doing what he can to cut
down on the odors and air pollution. Instead of spraying the fields with manure,
they’ve been injecting it into the soil. And next year, he says, they’ll build a new
manure treatment lagoon. But with five hundred more cows scheduled to arrive at
the dairy soon, his neighbors don’t expect the air around their homes to improve in
the coming years. And they don’t hold out much hope that the government will help

For the Environment, I’m Mark Brush.

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