Agricultural groups in Ohio and Indiana pushed back hard on a report from the Environmental Working Group showing that 90% of livestock operations in the Western Lake Erie Basin that are not required to obtain discharge permits account for most of the manure produced there.

In the first effort to identify and map all of the AFOs in the basin, EWG found nearly 2,300 of approximately 2,500 AFOs “aren’t monitored by any government agencies.” Most of the facilities in  the analysis are in Ohio.

The Ohio Pork Board and the Ohio Farm Bureau swiftly issued statements disputing the notion that Ohio’s livestock industry is unregulated, statements which were themselves disputed by EWG. 

“All livestock farms, regardless of size, must comply with the Ohio Agricultural Pollution Abatement Program (APAP),” Cheryl Day, executive vice president of the Ohio Pork Council, said, while large farms also must obtain permits through the Livestock Environmental Permitting Program.

Ohio Farm Bureau spokesperson Ty Higgins said "it is a common misconception that Ohio livestock farms are unregulated. Truth is, Ohio has one of the most comprehensive regulatory systems in the nation.” The abatement program and the livestock permitting program “mandate that no Ohio farm can pollute the waters of the state and there are penalties if pollution occurs.”

EWG Midwest Director Anne Schechinger, however, responded to the criticism by saying that “If Ohio’s smaller animal operations were actually regulated as the Ohio Farm Bureau and Ohio Pork Council claim, someone in an Ohio regulatory agency would be able to provide the public with at least some of this information – never mind all of it. But, shockingly, they can’t. We know, because we’ve asked, during many meetings with agency staff across the last two years.”

“According to The Ohio State University, 85 percent of the phosphorus in Lake Erie comes from agriculture,” Schechinger said. “If there really were strong state laws saying that ‘no Ohio farms can pollute the waters of the state and there are penalties if pollution occurs,’ as the Ohio Farm Bureau insists, none of the phosphorus driving Lake Erie’s annual toxic cyanobacteria bloom would come from agriculture. And if these regulations do exist, the state of Ohio is obviously doing a very poor job of enforcement.” 

Indiana Pork Executive Director Josh Trenary says compared with 50 years ago, farmers are using “78% less land, 41% less water and have a 35% smaller carbon footprint per pound of pork produced. Our farmers are doing more with less, and that includes nutrients.”


He also said Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) requires hog operations with over 600 head to get a permit to operate “that includes manure and soil testing requirements and recordkeeping requirements to ensure producers are using that testing data to apply manure at agronomic rates.  Indiana’s 600-head state permitting threshold is much more aggressive than many other pork producing states.”

EWG noted that IDEM has a lower threshold and thus has a better idea of the number and location of its animal feeding operations.

Samuel Mullins, chief of livestock and environmental permitting at the Ohio Department of Agriculture, said he had a problem with calling the facilities “unregulated,” and said he would have liked to have seen the report discuss efforts being made to address pollution through Ohio’s H2O grant program.

However, he also said smaller facilities generally do not have to prepare manure management plans and that enforcement of the state’s ag pollution abatement law would likely only come into play if manure was not applied according to Natural Resources Conservation Service guidelines.

“There's undoubtedly facilities out there that have issues,” Mullins said. “I think we would be naive to say that there's there are no bad players out there.” But when discussing whether all facilities should be required to obtain permits, he says, “I think what gets missed in all of this is the amount of resources that it would take, particularly in states like Ohio or Michigan, to have the staff.”

Nutrient runoff contributes to harmful algal blooms (HABs) annually in the basin. Currently, “The Microcystis cyanobacteria bloom in western Lake Erie has an approximate area of 320 square miles, which is an increase in area since July 21,” NOAA’s National Centers for Ocean Coastal Science says.

“Toxins have been detected above the recreational limit,” NOAA said. “They can be highly concentrated in scums! If you see scum, keep your pets and yourself out of the water.”

In Michigan, Indiana and Ohio, the states examined in the analysis, 240 CAFOs had permits, EWG said. Although less than 10 percent of all animal facilities, “they accounted for 37 percent of the total phosphorus from manure produced in the basin.”

The larger share – 63% of manure phosphorus – was produced by the 2,279 unpermitted operations, EWG said.

“EWG’s report and maps vividly illustrate how thousands of permitted and unpermitted animal feeding operations are contributing to water pollution issues in Lake Erie and beyond,” the report says. 

“By shining a light on hot spots where facilities are particularly dense, we’re hoping to help state agencies in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio determine where to focus efforts to better track and manage these facilities and the enormous quantities of manure they produce and apply to crops.”

But Higgins said “the bashing of the livestock industry has to stop. Manure, when managed properly as farmers do, improves the soil which helps water quality, and is actually part of the solution to water quality challenges. To say that every unpermitted farm allows manure to enter the watershed is a gross misrepresentation of what is actually happening in Northwest Ohio and the source of this report and the agenda it represents should be considered by anyone who reads it.”

Schechinger, however, said EWG did not say anywhere in its analysis that “every unpermitted farm allows manure to enter the watershed.”

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“Many farmers in the basin – organic and otherwise – are committed to reducing the amount of phosphorus coming off their land. But the annual algae bloom in Lake Erie and other Ohio lakes like Grand Lake St. Marys – not to mention many E. coli-caused beach closures throughout the state every summer – provide indisputable evidence that animal manure from farms does indeed pollute water in the Western Lake Erie basin.”

About 1,800 AFOs in Ohio, or 71% of the total, were included in the analysis of the basin and an additional 5-mile buffer, an area of 14,343 square miles. Indiana had 527 AFOs (21%) and Michigan 194 (8%).

“Indiana has the highest percentage of permitted operations, 22 percent, because the state requires smaller facilities to have a permit,” the report says. “By contrast, only 13 percent of operations are permitted in Michigan and just 6 percent in Ohio, because these states make only the largest operations get a permit, as required by the Clean Water Act.”

“HABs of cyanobacteria in freshwater systems like the Great Lakes are a growing threat to human and ecological health,” the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy says on its website.

A drinking water crisis in Toledo, Ohio, in August 2014 highlighted the problem in the WLEB. More than a half million residents in and outside the city were told not to drink, cook or brush their teeth with their tap water for three days.

EWG’s report and map “pinpoint hot spots in the Western Lake Erie Basin with high densities of animal agriculture operations, from small to large facilities,” EWG said in its press release. “Our calculations show, in several places, there is likely not enough cropland nearby to absorb the massive amounts of nutrients, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus, in these animals’ manure.” 

Farmers often lack the resources to tackle the problem of excess manure, said David Ruck, a documentary filmmaker who has done a film called “The Erie Situation.”

“It's not fair to say that all farmers are the sole cause of this problem,” he said on a press call today to discuss the report. “There's a lot of farmers trying to do, and are doing, the right thing, but the resources that are out there … oftentimes is lacking.”

Schechinger said she hopes state agencies can use the information gathered in the report to better inform and target efforts to reduce phosphorus runoff from AFOs.

“Michigan has really started working on targeting farm conservation practices to the areas with the largest phosphorus runoff potential,” she said. “Ohio is less focused on that. With Indiana, they have less of the Western Lake Erie Basin in their state, so it's a pretty small focus.”

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This story has been updated with reaction from the Ohio Farm Bureau, Ohio Pork Council and Indiana Pork, and comments from the Ohio Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Working Group.