Midwest Environmental Advocates is a nonprofit environmental law center that works for healthy water, air, land and government for this generation and the next. We believe that every citizen has the potential to make a difference.

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CAFO Q&A with Bayfield County Resident Rallying for Clean Water

Feb 17, 2015

This month, we spoke with Mary Dougherty, a resident of Bayfield County, who has been burning the midnight oil to rally her community around protecting their abundant, clean drinking water. Reicks View Farms, a concentrated animal feeding operation in Iowa, has proposed establishing a CAFO in the Town of Eileen in Bayfield County. Local residents have expressed concerns about the proposed Badgerwood CAFO and the enormous amount of manure waste the operation would produce.

On January 27, Midwest Environmental Advocates wrote a letter to Mary expressing concerns about the location of the proposed CAFO near important surface water, its potential to impact ground water, the need for the county to get the best data on how the CAFO's waste manure will be stored and disposed of or spread on area land, and how the county should be proactive on water monitoring, getting the full details of the proposal before approving permits, and how it should lead by protecting public health first.

On Wednesday, February 18, the Bayfield County Board will vote on a proposed two-year moratorium on permits for industrial livestock operations. The county's board of health unanimously voted in support of the proposed moratorium and over 3,000 signatures of local residents and others from Wisconsin, Minnesota and around the country has been submitted to the county board.

This is why Mary is involved.

What are you working to protect? What makes Bayfield County special?

Lake Superior. It’s not only a regional resource but a global one. It requires very careful consideration when we discuss what types of industry are suitable in the Lake Superior Basin and all of our interconnected waters. The proposed Badgerwood concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, would have 26,000 hogs and produce 6.5 million gallons of liquid manure. It does not belong in the Fish Creek Watershed, less than eight miles from the Chequamegon Bay and Lake Superior. The risk of pollution and threats to our health are just too great for the water my children and my community depend on.

But I am also trying to protect our water for a future, global community. Some 7.125 billion people are walking on this planet right now. The sum total of the populations of Ontario, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin is 34.65 million. In essence, those of us who live near Lake Superior - less than .0049 percent of the world's population - are the direct stewards of 10 percent of the planet's fresh water.

How do we handle such a weighty responsibility? By being leaders who work to protect and conserve the waters in the Lake Superior Basin. By holding all economic development and industry to a high level of scrutiny. At some point, we have to decide the resources we’ve so generously been given are not endless and deserve our utmost respect and gratitude. Bayfield County is no place for a swine CAFO from Iowa.

We know that swine CAFOs are having problems in other states with a viral epidemic. What about human health?

The threats posed by CAFOs to air quality, water quality and human health from pathogens such as bacteria and viruses are numerous and well-documented. Dr Keeve Nachman, PhD John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, estimates that the 6.5 million gallons of liquid waste from the Badgerwood CAFO is the equivalent to a city of 50,000 people. That’s over three times the population of Bayfield County. There is one crucial difference between a city with 50,000 people and a CAFO with 26,000 hogs: cities treat their waste and CAFOs spread it on farm fields.

The City of Ashland, less than 10 miles from the Badgerwood CAFO site, gets its drinking water from the Chequamegon Bay. It's not an unreasonable conclusion that the agricultural run-off from the CAFO will find its way into the Bay. When you consider the Des Moines Water Works is suing three up-stream counties in federal court to force them to clean up the waste that drains from factory farms and reaches rivers used for drinking water, this conclusion seems plausible, if not likely.    

It's important to note that CAFOs are a self-regulating and self-reporting industry. Typically a DNR staffer will visit the facility once every four years when a WPDES permit comes up for renewal. Ken Johnson, who heads the DNR’s water division, told WisconsinWatch.org that the agency relies heavily upon self-reporting and citizen complaints when it comes to water quality and degradation. “I know people would like us to have an inspector out there every time somebody spreads,” Johnson said. “But we don’t have the staff or the inclination to do that. It would be very expensive to do that.”

After the American Public Health Association’s reviewed evidence of the health and economic impacts of CAFOs and wrote “evidence, albeit less certain, indicating impacts on children and CAFO neighbors from exposure to large concentrations of manure and their subsequent emissions of dust, toxins, microbes, antibiotics and pollutants in the air and water,” the Association resolved in 2003 that it would: Urge federal, state, and local governments, and public health agencies to impose a moratorium on new Concentrated Animal Feed Operations until additional scientific data on the attendant risks to public health have been collected and uncertainties resolved. Since then, the number of CAFOs have continued to increase and we can look to places like Kewaunee County, Wisconsin to see how too much factory farm waste is damaging people’s drinking water.

Why should we entrust our public health, clean water, air and land to CAFO operators whose main concern is their bottom line? If we look around the state, and country, we see that our invaluable natural resources are not in the right hands and the regulatory agencies tasked with protecting us are under-staffed and unable to do their jobs. Moratoria, like the one currently before the Bayfield County board, are a way to have our local elected officials take time to think about what’s at stake for the health of our community.  

What’s next? Can people still make a difference here?

We are in the very beginning stages of assessing the risks the Badgerwood CAFO poses to our community as well as developing a strategy for active civic engagement in the process. I can guarantee that Bayfield County concerned citizens will be engaged every step of the way: from requesting an Environmental Impact Study from the DNR, to hosting educational community events, to setting up water quality monitoring around the CAFO site and the farm fields leased by Badgerwood for spreading manure, to monitoring Badgerwood when they are injecting the manure and making sure the standards in the Nutrient Management Plan are being followed.

We are learning that the proliferation of CAFOs in Wisconsin has created a statewide network of communities who are actively engaged in protecting themselves from the negative consequences of factory farming and we are getting even more connected to share ideas and strategies as we move forward.

Do you need to be an expert in water quality help or to be involved?

No. This isn't a fight against a factory farm; it's a fight for where we live and the values that are important to us: clean water, strong communities, our rural heritage and a healthy environment. We are encouraging not only environmental advocacy but also civic engagement. There is still room for the voice of “we the people” in our political system, but we have to show up, take an interest, and get involved!

The price of admission to the civic and political arena is simply show up and get involved. Start where your interests are, speak up for what you believe in, and help create the future you want. The beautiful part of this whole process is realizing that we have far more in common than we think. Our role, as committed members of Bayfield County, is to help create a bedrock of commonality that all questions about our future are filtered through.... just like the healthy watershed we are working to protect.

- Mary Dougherty lives in Bayfield Wisconsin with her husband, 5 children and three dogs. She's a water-loving, good food eating, even better wine drinking photographer who believes that civic engagement, vigilance and stewardship are critical as we move towards a world where water scarcity will determine the health and viability of communities.

She started a photography project called Words for Water in response to the CAFO issue facing her community. It's a gathering place for people who value the Lake Superior Basin and its fragile ecosystem. She asks the question, "what are your words for water?" in order to capture the essence of what we, as a community, value about Lake Superior and the land, streams, rivers and watersheds that feed it.


For more on how farmers and local residents in the Lake Superior basin are working to protect their watershed and support sustainable agriculture in the region, visit farmsnotfactories.com. A page has been dedicated to providing updates on the proposed Badgerwood CAFO


Saturday, Feb 28: Ashland

Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center, 1:00 – 4:30 p.m.

Panel on what happens after a concentrated animal feeding operation is sited in your community will feature speakers including MEA board Secretary Gordon Stevenson, former Chief of Runoff Management at the Wisconsin DNR. More details and RSVP on the Facebook event page.

/ tagged: water, rural, agriculture, drinking water, great lakes