It's a shock to hear about farm families being bullied into submission by scare tactics, physical intimidation, and legal threats, but with their sparse and aging populations, these communities are especially vulnerable—they don't represent many votes, they don't have much money. And they are generally conservative; the people here believe in hard work, minding your own business, and not kicking or complaining.
One afternoon while Lynn was out monitoring water, a manure hauler started tailing her. Up ahead, another one was barreling toward her, charging down the middle of the road, leaving her no room to pass. Lynn pulled off the road, and the two haulers and one pickup truck belonging to a CAFO pulled in around her, blocking off her exit. The state police were called, and when the officer arrived, he told Lynn he was going to have to charge her with reckless driving. "I've got three witnesses," he said.
"Really?" was all Lynn said before pulling out her camera and showing the officer pictures of the semi coming straight at her, forcing her off the road.
"You're free to go, Mrs. Henning," the officer said. "We will take care of this."
Before we return to her house late that afternoon, we pass two great blue herons—they're at least four feet tall, their feathers, the pearlescent gray-blue of massive shells, and they're standing side by side in a field laid thick with animal waste. There have been no studies on the CAFOs' effect on local wildlife. Lynn can only talk of what she's observed and wonder if it's due to the infiltration of factory farms: There are fewer and fewer butterflies in the area, and frogs have gone silent in many of the wetlands. She has seen raccoons and possums standing stupefied in the roads in the middle of the day. Fish suffocated in dead water. Deer crowd onto her farm like never before. She assumes it's because this is one place where the food isn't growing in fields of untreated manure.
The next morning, after a night of rain, Lynn is clambering down into a ditch where oily brown water is flowing out of a pipe and into a creek. She's wearing latex gloves and holding a plastic bottle. She fills the bottle with the brownish liquid, which she'll take to the sewage treatment plant later this afternoon to have tested for pathogens. In one little creek she tested, she found infectious cryptosporidium. In another, seven and a half million E. coli (the state of Michigan recommends no body contact with water having an E. coli count over 1,000). This last was the worst manure discharge she has ever seen—and it took place the day after state agents conducted an inspection of the facility.
Animal waste can end up in the waterways because it's applied so heavily and the soil is so compacted that it simply rolls off the land and into the creeks, especially after a rainfall. But most often it enters through underground pipes, or tiles.
All of these farm fields have underground drainage systems, first laid here about 150 years ago. This area of Michigan was once the northern tip of the Great Black Swamp, an area that was treacherous to traverse, impossible to farm, a great sucker of animal and man and spawner of mosquitoes and malaria. In the mid-1800s, settlers began digging ditches to allow some of the water to drain off the land and then laying pipes under the ground to drain more water and direct it to the ditches, creeks, and lakes. When the draining process was done, the farming began. Driving around the area today, all of those ditches still line the roads (in fact, the roads came after the ditches; the dug-out soil was used for the roadbed, and so roads follow ditches, not the other way around), and the perforated pipes that were put in to drain excess water so farmers could work the land now drain excess manure. They're basically an underground sewage system. And the ditches have become open sewers.
Operators are not supposed to apply manure when there is a high chance of rain because rain washes the waste straight down into the tile system and off into the waterways, but some do anyway. When Lynn first started finding manure and parasitic bloodworms, algae blooms, and fish kills in the water, she would alert the health department or the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and again and again, she'd be ignored.
"After three years, the lightbulb went off," she says, "and I said, 'Let's send this to everybody.' By then we had a system of taking photographs with time and date for credibility—pictures of the samples, the waterways. We sent them to the health department, the Department of Environmental Quality [DEQ], the local Drain Commission, the Department of Agriculture, the DNR [Department of Natural Resources], the legislators, the governor's office, the attorney general, the U.S. EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], and said, 'This is what's happening right now. Who will be responding to this?' And when you send it to everybody, somebody has to jump."
In the past ten years, the ECCSCM has recorded more than 1,000 citations that state and federal agencies have issued against these 12 CAFOs for violations of laws such as the Clean Water Act, resulting in compliance orders, fines, and lawsuits. Lynn does the groundwork for the DEQ, sending them test results and photographs with her own written observations. One hog facility has been partially shut down as a result of her efforts.
Lynn's research methods have become such a valuable asset that the Sierra Club asked her to do a "brain dump," so people all over the country can now go to the Sierra Club's Web site and learn how to monitor and report the pollution practices of factory farms in their area.
But it was the ability to get aerial photographs of the CAFOs that made Lynn "lethal," as she puts it. "There were things happening at the facilities that we couldn't see on the ground, that we couldn't document and that the state agency wasn't there to see either," Lynn explains. "Now they could issue a violation based on the aerial photos, because they could see the hose [where the waste] was being pumped over to the ditch, or there was a pile of dead animals, or the lagoon was overflowing into the calf hutches. It was very visual and it was very definite."
We Hear You!