Investigation: Manure From Unregulated Factory Farms Fuels Lake Erie’s Toxic Algae Blooms
MINNEAPOLIS – Unregulated animal factory farms are funneling nutrient-rich pollution into Lake Erie, feeding an enormous toxic algae bloom each summer, according to a new investigation by the Environmental Working Group and the Environmental Law & Policy Center.
By analyzing aerial photos, satellite imagery and state permit data, the groups identified 775 hog, cattle, dairy and poultry operations in the Maumee River watershed in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan in 2018 – a 40 percent increase since 2005. The investigation found that more than a fourth of factory farms in the watershed had expanded since they were built, and at least half the manure generated along the Ohio portion of the river comes from operations that lack state permits.
“Until now, no one knew how many industrial animal farms are in the Maumee River watershed,” said Sarah Porter, EWG senior analyst and project manager. “The steady growth of factory farms in the area might help explain why the Lake Erie toxic algae bloom is still such a huge problem, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars the state has spent trying to clean it up.”
Manure from animal factory farms is rich in nutrients like phosphorus, which triggers the growth of toxic algae blooms. About 30 percent of the phosphorus feeding the Lake Erie bloom comes from the Maumee River.
Last year the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency reported that the amount of phosphorus in Lake Erie has remained fairly steady over the past few years, even though the state has been working with soy and corn farmers to implement voluntary best practices for handling agricultural runoff.
The investigation shows one possible reason: Although farmers have made strides in reducing the amount of commercial fertilizer running into Lake Erie and other waterways, animal factory farms – and the millions of tons of manure they generate each year – have been flying under the radar.
Nutrient-laden farm runoff is largely responsible not just for Lake Erie’s notorious toxic algae bloom, which made Toledo’s water unsafe to drink for several days in 2014, but also for hundreds of other such outbreaks across the U.S.
The Maumee River drains about 6,500 square miles in the three states, but three-fourths of the watershed is in Ohio. Farmers in that state don’t need permits for small- and medium-size animal farms, which can house thousands of animals, exempting them from guidelines about how to manage animal manure.
“Ohio must finally set a legal limit for the amount of phosphorus industrial farms can release into waterways and create a concrete plan to achieve the needed reductions,” said Madeline Fleisher, senior attorney in Ohio for the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “Millions of people in the Great Lakes region are tired of watching regulators and lawmakers continue to spend money just to kick the can down the road.”
Requiring permits for all of Ohio’s commercial animal operations, regardless of size, would allow state regulators to track how many facilities exist, how many animals they house and how much manure they produce.
“In the absence of permits, policy makers are basically making blind decisions about how to best manage animal factory farms and the pollution they create,” Porter said. “As long as that gaping loophole exists, lasting cleanup of Lake Erie and other waterways is incredibly unlikely.”
Most of the factory farms built since 2005 in the Maumee River watershed raise swine and poultry, Porter said. Even though a chicken produces less manure than a hog, chicken manure has a much higher concentration of phosphorus and nitrogen.
In 2017, thick, blue-green slime covered more than 700 square miles of Lake Erie – one of the worst years yet for the lake’s annual algae bloom, probably because of heavy rains. The bloom’s size and duration are determined in part by the amount of water that enters the lake from several rivers, including the Maumee. The spring rains currently flooding much of the upper Midwest provide one indication that Lake Erie’s bloom could be particularly intense this year.
In the absence of meaningful regulations protecting Lake Erie, residents of Toledo, Ohio, recently approved a ballot measure granting the water body the same rights as people, which will allow citizens to sue on its behalf. The Ohio Farm Bureau is challenging the results as unconstitutional.
The peak toxic algae bloom season generally runs from May through October. But warming waters and changing weather patterns caused by climate change seem to be extending the season, and making blooms more intense and more widespread throughout the U.S.
EWG tracks news reports of toxic algae blooms since 2010 in an interactive map.
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The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action. Visit www.ewg.org for more.
The Environmental Law & Policy Center is the Midwest’s leading public interest environmental legal advocacy organization that develops strategic campaigns to protect natural resources and improve environmental quality. The nonprofit’s multi-disciplinary staff employs teamwork approaches using legal, economic, and public policy tools to produce successes that improve our environment and economy.