Cleveland Plain Dealer
Animal agriculture is booming across the Midwest these days, but not on the family farms that resonate in the American psyche. Instead, it is happening at concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which confine thousands of animals and produce far more waste than the land can handle, but they are poorly regulated and poorly understood by both the public and policymakers.
Manure is laden with nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. When excessively applied, nitrogen can seep into groundwater and taint wells with nitrate, which is linked to cancer and birth defects. Excess phosphorus runs off of fields into waterways, where it fuels algae growth. Algae coat rivers and lakes in toxic green scum, threatening drinking water, impairing recreation, and damaging local economies. Algae also deplete oxygen, choking out aquatic life, and causing dead zones. In 2014, Lake Erie was overwhelmed with such algae, causing Toledo to shut down its water supply for three days.
To shine a light on the hidden world of large-scale agricultural pollution, ELPC developed a method of monitoring industrial livestock production using publicly available satellite imagery. Researchers measured the visible infrastructure and used industry guidelines to estimate animal counts, manure volume, and nutrient output over time. The results reveal rapid, massive growth in animal feeding operations in the Maumee River Valley, and downstream communities have already seen the impact of their resultant nutrient pollution over the past few decades. The data from this study represents the most complete accounting of confined livestock within the Maumee River basin. ELPC is now monitoring CAFO growth in Wisconsin and fighting in the courts to reduce pollution in Lake Erie.
The southernmost Great Lake is also the shallowest, making it most vulnerable to pollution. In the last few years, Lake Erie has become inundated with annual algal blooms, fueled by nutrient pollution. In the summer of 2017, ELPC sued the U.S. EPA for failing to enforce the Clean Water Act and protect Lake Erie communities. A federal judge agreed, and the Ohio EPA declared western Lake Erie officially “impaired” in 2018. In February 2019, ELPC filed a new related lawsuit against the Trump Administration EPA, challenging its approval of an Ohio EPA decision in June 2018 to make western Lake Erie a “low” priority for setting a pollution budget. ELPC will continue to fight until a meaningful cleanup plan is in place.
Midwesterners know that clean water is a basic human need, and polls show widespread support for water regulation. Unfortunately, the current EPA administration is doing everything possible to abdicate this responsibility, by eroding bedrock environmental regulations, cutting resources, and declining enforcement. ELPC is fighting in the courts to protect sensible regulations under the Clean Water Act, while serving as a watchdog for the Midwest to hold EPA and polluters accountable.