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Life Arts    H3'ed 5/22/11

Is This Megadairy A Threat to Health and Livelihood of NW Illinois Residents?

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My guest today is Matthew Alschuler, press agent for HOMES [Helping Others Maintain Environmental Standards] Jo Daviess County, in far NorthWest Illinois. Welcome to OpEdNews, Matthew. Your organization is involved in something big right now. Would you like to tell our readers about it?

Sure! In December of 2007, a number of my neighbors learned that A.J. Bos, a California millionaire, was planning to build the largest industrial dairy east of the Mississippi near our homes. Jo Daviess County is dotted with traditional family farms, some of which have been in the same family for over 150 years. Agriculture and tourism are our county's main industries, and this facility, with its 11,000 cows on a few hundred acres, threatened to destroy them both. 

2007 Aerial Photograph of Jo Daviess County taken near the site of the megadairy. Photo credit: HOMES

The more we learned about this project, and the poor reputation that the owner, A.J. Bos, had earned at his previous 52,000 head animal factory in Oregon, the more worried we became. The United Farm Workers had sued him repeatedly over a five year period for sexual discrimination and paying workers below minimum wage. The National Association of Clean Air Agencies testified in Congress that his facility was the single largest point source of ammonia discharge in America. The Illinois EPA had a terrible track record in policing other animal factories in Illinois. And once in, he could easily expand his facility to 40,000 cows without requiring any more permits or public oversight.

The county board quickly requested a public informational meeting from the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA). Over 500 residents spent six hours on a cold snowy night listening to the engineers explain their plan, and airing their concerns that this facility would destroy the rural communities that made this area so desirable for family farms, retirees, and tourists.

The county board also heard testimony from the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS) that warned of possible contamination to our streams and wells should this facility be built over the fractured bedrock found in our region of the state. In the end, they voted 11 to 5 to prohibit this facility from being built in our county. But even though our elected officials, representing the will of the citizens, rejected this animal factory, an appointed official at the IDOA ignored their wishes, and the official report from the ISGS, and issued a construction permit in May of 2008.

For the last two and a half years, dozens of volunteers and hundreds of supporters have battled this facility in the courts and in the papers, took photographs and water samples of discharges, filed reports with the IEPA, the US EPA, the Attorney General, presented informational meetings all over Northern Illinois, and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to stop a facility that never should have received a permit had state law been properly followed.

I don't get it. The County Board weighed the evidence, heard all the testimony, voted against it and yet was overruled by the state officials from the Illinois Department of Agriculture. What's the precise role of the IDOA? Aren't they supposed to protect the health and well-being of Illinois citizens?

Maybe in theory, but not in practice.  The Department of Ag occupies a very delicate balance between advocating for agriculture in Illinois, and regulating agriculture in Illinois. Due to the incredible amount of money and political influence wielded by large agriculture and the lucrative jobs in industry that await these civil servants once they leave government, they invariably side with corporate interests. We were not the first community that rejected a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) in Illinois, yet in every case, the IDOA overruled the local elected officials, and permitted the facility against the interests and desires of the community.

About ten to twelve years ago, corporate agriculture realized that they could not continue to run industrial scale feed lots or dairies in the southwest or western United States.  Water was just too expensive, feed had to be trucked in too far, environmental regulations were getting tougher as they destroyed the ground water in California, it cost too much to dispose of the manure, etc.

So they decided that they had to move from relatively barren isolated areas into prime farmland in the Midwest. Here water is free, corn is next door, mash from ethanol plants is close by, land is cheap, grain farmers are willing to take their liquid manure to use as fertilizer, and most importantly, environmental laws are lax. 
Aerial photograph of megadairy construction site showing destruction of prime farm land. This shows about 140 acres, or 1/5 of a square mile. Photo credit: HOMES

However, they knew that there would be stiff opposition from communities, so in a number of Midwest states they sat down with legislators, and with the help of Farm Bureau, which supports industrial ag over family farms, crafted CAFO siting laws. On the surface, these gave state agriculture departments control over the siting and permitting of CAFOs, but in reality gave these ag departments absolute control over any land that is zoned agriculture, completely bypassing local control by county or municipal boards.

They got these laws passed by explaining that large CAFOs were just too complicated to be regulated by individual county boards, and that by centralizing the process, they could better protect the state. Although this makes sense, in reality, the laws are weak and the enforcement non-existent. Citizens don't even have standing to appeal a ruling on the grounds that the IDOA violated the very law that gave them the power to permit these facilities. It is yet another sign that corporate America owns the political process, and individual citizens can't protect their land, air, water, or health.

So, where does that leave enraged citizens? Have lawsuits or other actions slowed the CAFOs down at all?

Since our facility wasn't built yet we filed an anticipatory nuisance suit. We were armed with three state geologists that said that this facility would leak and manure and bacteria would get into the groundwater, which supplies the adjacent homes and cities with all of their drinking water. 
Handmade signs appeared all over the county aimed at educating the locals and the tourists to the devastation that awaited our county. Photo credit: HOMES

The animal factory was armed with six lawyers, from at least three different law firms. In the end, the judge decided that the highly paid geologist that was hired by the animal factory was more believable than three state employees that were experts in fractured bedrock and testified only as friends of the court. So we lost the case.

We were also told that we didn't have standing to ask a judge to review the original issuance of the permit. We requested this review since a number of legal experts felt that the IDOA had violated the Livestock Management Facilities Act (LMFA) when they permitted this facility to be built over fractured bedrock. When we first filed this lawsuit, we assumed that the judge would review the decision of the IDOA, and stop the project.  Once we lost standing, we were forced to proceed in court on just the nuisance suit, which is a much more difficult case to win. Due to our lack of standing, the permitting decision has never been reviewed by any governmental unit or judge.

The good news is that residents in Missouri who have been suffering due to living near hog CAFOs have recently won a few multi-million dollar cases in court. The Missouri legislature decided that something should be done about these polluting CAFOs, and therefore made it illegal for citizens to sue a facility more than once, and if they did sue, they could only get back a portion of the value of their house, after which they would have to live there in the stench without any further legal recourse.

This is the same method that governmental bodies use to obtain land from private landowners when they feel it is needed for a highway, state park, or some other purpose that serves the public at large.

Both Iowa and Florida are also trying to pass laws making it a felony to take a photograph of an animal factory from a public roadway. All of these pictures of pollution and animal cruelty were hurting the profits of agribusiness.

So, the long and short of it is that citizens are not being protected by governmental agencies and in fact are being hindered in trying to protect themselves.  How maddening! So, what's the heart of your case and what happens now?

Corporate lobbyists and the Farm Bureau have very successfully crafted legislation that removes local control of siting of these animal factories from citizens. They have weakened environmental laws and cut funding to state EPAs so that environmental agencies can't police these facilities.
Under the guise of stopping food poisoning, legislators are being coerced into passing laws that end up limiting the rights of farmers to sell their products at local farmers markets, when the real culprits are the corporate animal factories. This relentless pursuit of the family farmer is destroying rural communities, while putting the bulk of America's food production in the hands of only a few multinational corporations.

Before we went to court, the county board and the Illinois Attorney General asked a number of state and local experts to study the bedrock located under this area of NW Illinois. The board's  concern was that fractured bedrock, known as karst, was present underneath the entire megadairy, and would allow animal waste to travel directly into the groundwater that serves as our sole source of drinking water. When these experts reported that the area was covered with fractures, the county board voted the facility down, and sent their recommendations and the studies on to the IDOA.

The IDOA ignored the section of the LMFA that requires any animal factory built over karst to have concrete or steel reinforced manure ponds, and instead issued a construction permit allowing the manure ponds to be built out of compacted soil found on the site of the facility.

We had three of these state experts, each of which had more than 20 years of experience in studying karst bedrock, testify in court. They all said that the facility was surrounded by road cuts and quarries that clearly showed the fractures in the bedrock extended throughout the entire area, and warned the judge that these cracks in the aquifer would allow animal waste to contaminate our drinking water and compromise the health of the community. 
A large vertical karst fracture in the wall of a quarry near the megadairy. These cracks are visible in every road cut and quarry in the region, proving that the entire area is riddled with fractures. Photo credit: HOMES 

The team of lawyers that worked for the millionaire investor managed to plant some doubts in the judge's mind regarding the conclusions of these scientists. Although we originally obtained a temporary restraining order against this facility, which has halted construction at the site since October of 2008, after a year and a half of trials, the judge dismissed the case. We brought our case to the appellate court, where we lost as well.

Although we do have a few legal options available to us at this time we are waiting for some other developments to play out.

On October 1, 2010, the megadairy discharged into a nearby stream tens of thousands of gallons of bright purple wastewater leaking from thousands of tons of stored feed. In April 2011 the Illinois Attorney General, who was asked by the IEPA to prosecute this case, responded to this discharge by filing a five-count suit against the megadairy asking for $ 250,000 in fines and requiring the animal factory to file for a discharge permit. Obtaining this permit is a long and costly process, and could easily take a year to complete. 

On October 1, 2010, a tributary to the pristine Apple River was turned purple by a discharge of silage leachate off of the megadairy site. The site's engineer believes the color is due to bacteria. Photo credit: HOMES 

During the lengthy court battle the US EPA also became interested in the megadairy. Citing their authority under the Clean Water Act, the EPA sent a series of questions to the facility, which AJ Bos repeatedly failed to answer to the satisfaction of the EPA. The EPA finally ordered the facility to conduct a dye tracing study which would prove the presence or absence of karst fractures under the site of the manure ponds. So far the factory has also refused to do these tests knowing that they'd prove the existence of fractures directly under the 34 acres of manure ponds. This case could take years to play out in the courts, and cost the facility far more than the testing ever would.

What a mess! This story just might make our readers mad. If they want to know more and get involved, what's the next step, Matthew?

First, visit our web site at to read up on our struggle. Donations to cover our huge legal bills are desperately needed. We also have article that address industrial agriculture in general, plus links to other groups fighting CAFOs in their communities.

Second, start calling your elected officials, both state and federal.

1) Tell them that you believe in local control - county or village boards should have the democratic right to control the siting of CAFOs in their community.

2) Tell them that you want a cap on farm subsidies - mega farmers shouldn't be getting millions of dollars of taxpayers money while driving sustainable farmers out of business.

3) Ask them to support legislation that would limit the non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics in food animals. 80% of the antibiotics produced in this country are given to food animals. Many groups including the PEW trust  and the Union of Concerned Scientists have concluded that the overuse of antibiotics in animal factories has caused a dramatic increase in the number of antibiotic resistant infections seen in hospitals. In 2007, the CDC reported that over 18,000 Americans die per year from these infections. By stopping the use of these lifesaving drugs in CAFOs, we can reserve them for treating humans. This will require the large confined operations to take better care of their animals, keep their facilities cleaner, and provide each animal more room to move around, thereby reducing their stress. That will also make it easier for sustainable farmers, that don't get those large subsidies, to compete in the marketplace with these animal factories.

4) As with any corporate industry, industrial agriculture has an army of lobbyists. They are currently working very hard to make it a felony for citizens to photograph a CAFO from the road or for an employee to document animal abuse. But lobbyists don't vote, you do, and if you make enough noise, you can get your politician to realize that you really care about the food you, your children, and your schools have access to. Start calling now!

Third, buy your food from local providers. Go to a farmers market or a grocery store that specializes in local foods. If your local grocery store doesn't promote local food, tell the manager to makes sure that they buy from traditional family farms rather than agribusiness giants. Then ask you neighbor to make the same request. Grocery stores are starting to feature local foods, and this helps support some of the hardest working people in America, family farmers!

Those are all good suggestions. Thank you. How did you get involved in this fight in the first place? Were you born an activist in bucolic far NW Illinois?

I was born and raised in inner-city Chicago. I have always opposed industrial scale agriculture, but had no idea the largest dairy facility east of the Mississippi would try to take over my rural community less than a year after I moved out here. I relocated my company to the small village of Warren with the long term goal of spending the rest of my life working and living in a clean, peaceful rural setting. This facility would ruin the air, the water, and the community. It had to be stopped.
I, and the hundreds of people that oppose this facility, decided we wouldn't take this invasion lying down. Some of my neighbors live on family farms that go back 170 years. They weren't about to let a millionaire investor from California, who lives on a golf course in a gated community, ruin their future or the future of their children.

Hundreds of people in our county have signed petitions rejecting CAFOs. Many of them have also donated to our legal fund, written letters to the editor of our local papers, come to meetings, called our legislators, etc. In some ways, it has fractured our community, relatives are no longer speaking to each other because of the megadairy. But it has also brought us closer together, built friendships that would never have existed otherwise, and motivated HOMES to continue to fight CAFOs long after we stop this facility.

Before attending the Green Festival last Sunday, I had no idea that megadairies were threatening my own neck of the woods. I can't say this was a fun interview, but I'm better informed on this issue now. Thanks so much for talking with me, Matthew.  I hope you'll keep us updated on future developments.

HOMES Facebook page

HOMES website

Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water (ICCAW) website
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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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