Politics & Prejudices: Poisoning Lake Erie

Jul 13, 2016 at 1:00 am
Politics & Prejudices: Poisoning Lake Erie

I know you just can't wait for next week, when Donald Trump, trailing clouds of glory, will descend on Cleveland to receive the Republican presidential nomination.

But there are one or two slightly smaller issues you might want to think about before Dan Quayle and Sarah Palin's intellectual heir formally receives his party's blessing.

For example, owners of vast, absolutely horrible factory farms are doing their best to poison Lake Erie, making it all but inevitable that even treated tap water may not be safe to drink.

That's not an exaggeration. According to David Neuendorff, president of a group called Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie, such farms are "dumping 700 million gallons of untreated manure and liquid waste on saturated land in such concentrations that it is flowing out through field tiles, to streams ... (and eventually) out into Lake Erie."

This is not only disgusting, but highly dangerous.

The nitrates and the phosphorous in the excrement help spur the growth of giant, unsightly blooms of floating algae.

These contain poisonous cyanobacteria that can be seriously harmful to humans. In August 2014, the nation was startled when for two days, half a million people in and around Toledo couldn't drink or bathe with their tap water.

Poisonous toxic algae blooms were the reason why. Politicians assured people they were taking every possible precaution to avoid this happening again.

Then, naturally, they, and most of the rest of us, mostly forgot about it. Pam Taylor, however, didn't.

Her family first came to Lenawee County, not far from the Ohio border, in 1837, the year Michigan became a state. She, her parents, and her brother still live on a farm they've had since 1901. Sustainable, clean farming and the environment are vital to her, because she's deeply committed to the area.

Four years ago, after she retired as a business teacher at Adrian High School, she began volunteering with a group called Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan.

Two years ago, the water crisis came, and now she is volunteering fulltime. What she does is anything but glamorous; "we look at poop; that's what we do," she tells me.

Specifically, she is monitoring and tracking the flow of all this crap from factory farms — formally known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs — into the lake.

CAFOs are truly awful places, even apart from their threat to the water. They keep hundreds or thousands of animals indoors, packed next to each other in truly horrible conditions, to be raised for slaughter as quickly and cheaply as possible.

They also produce a huge amount of waste; one CAFO with 4,000 cows, she told me, produces as much crap as a city of 80,000 people. But Southfield, or Troy, say, cannot legally pour their residents' untreated poop and pee on the ground.

CAFOs however, can and do. Their excuse often is that it makes excellent fertilizer. Taylor, however, showed me pictures of this muck being sprayed onto frozen, snow-covered ground.

What that means is that it just runs off into the water table when the spring thaw comes.

What Taylor and those who work with her are doing is trying to provide irrefutable evidence that these factory farms are indeed fouling the lake in a way that directly leads to the dangerous algae blooms.

Her hope is that when confronted with the facts, the Michigan Legislature, as well as those in Ohio and Indiana, will be forced to do something. By the way, Taylor sees herself as anything but a far-out radical.

What matters to her most, she told me, is preserving rural culture and ways of life and making that economically possible.

"I'm not against business — I'm not against farmers making a living," she says. But the farm economy is being destroyed by these giant CAFOs, which she thinks prosper only because of the immense agricultural subsidies they receive.

"This drives the smaller farmers who are practicing good animal husbandry and sustainable, diversified crop production out of business, because what they are doing isn't subsidized."

She is convinced that factory farms couldn't make it without the immense subsidies they get "to build even bigger manure cesspits." At minimum, the government should require them to properly handle the crap they produce.

"As to livestock factory farms, there are only two things that 'work' to solve the pollution problem: municipal-grade waste treatment systems at the facility and pasture-based grazing systems that use dry-composting and proper manure storage techniques" for those times animals are indoors.

Makes sense to me. After all, I risk getting a ticket if I leave my dog's poop lying on the ground. Why should somebody else be allowed to pour millions of gallons of cow shit into the soil? Money, of course, and political connections.

"The ag lobby has such a tremendous hold on Michigan at all levels of government," Taylor says. Many officials are cozy with big agricultural operations and their lobbyists.

Bill Schuette, the state attorney general, is a former head of the Michigan Department of Agriculture. So was Dan Wyant, the former head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, who was fired after the lead poisoning scandal in Flint.

Wyant used to say that, when it came to getting factory farms to clean up their act, he favored "voluntary incentives." You can be sure the CAFOs all preferred them too.

For a long time, Taylor thought it would take a "major tragedy" to wake up both the journalists and policymakers. Now, she's not even sure that would do it. "The Toledo drinking water scare did wake up the media and the citizens," she says.

"However, nothing substantial is changing at the political level in Ohio, and after Flint, I have almost no hope that Michigan elected officials will pay attention to this issue, no matter what. They aren't going to take on Big Ag. Ever."

What she told me was profoundly depressing. I wondered why Taylor is still beating her head against the wall and spending her days tracking cow and pig poop.

"I'm very well aware that it's possible we are just chronicling a death foretold," she says. "But all the big important battles — against slavery, for the right to vote for women — had to start somewhere. For me, these are my people, my friends and neighbors, and some of them are being hurt badly.

"We were here first," she says finally.

"And it's wrong to send this stuff into the air and downstream to unsuspecting people. What would you do?"

Frankly, I wish I were as good a citizen as Pam Taylor, On July 20, the Michigan Environmental Council will present her with the Petoskey Prize for Environmental Leadership.

The award citation calls her "fearless, resolute, humble, and inspiring." They might have added: "absolutely necessary." Alternative to Donald Trump: Annabel Cohen is one of the top caterers and most respected food experts in all of metro Detroit. She likes Trump's slogan "Make America great again," but thinks there is a cheaper and better way.

"Outlaw shredded cheese," she tells me. "That would make us grate again." Silly? Stupid? Yes. Except compared to anything coming out of the Donald's mouth, not so much.

By the way, it is absolutely not true that the Republican National Committee told Trump he couldn't make his mirror his running mate. Just thought you might want to know.