Growing Food, Sowing Trouble

Published — January 24, 2020

U.S.-Canada board: The Great Lakes have a manure problem

A sign on an empty stretch of beach warns against coming into contact with the water at Maumee Bay State Park near Toledo, Ohio, in August 2019: “Algal toxins at UNSAFE levels have been detected.” (Jamie Smith Hopkins / Center for Public Integrity)


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An advisory panel for a U.S.-Canada commission is calling for government agencies in the Great Lakes region to overhaul how they manage farm animal manure, recommendations intended to protect people from toxins fouling area water.

The report by the International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board was completed in September but made public Jan. 24, the day after an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, Grist and The World into Lake Erie’s manure problem. The board’s report found that manure running off farm fields “contributes significantly” to the overloading of nutrients such as phosphorus that fuel toxic algae blooms in the region, Lake Erie included.

Both commercial fertilizer and manure are applied to fields to give crops needed nutrients, and both can run off those fields into water bodies. But over the last two decades — as algae problems in western Lake Erie worsened — farms in that region have applied less phosphorus from commercial fertilizer, the report said. Manure production, meanwhile, appears to have skyrocketed in an area that contributes an outsize share of the lake’s phosphorus pollution.

That manure must go somewhere. Too often, it’s being applied to fields at elevated levels that increase the risk of runoff, according to a review of Ohio permit documentation for farms in the western Lake Erie region by Public Integrity and its partners.

Among the Great Lakes Water Quality Board’s recommendations:

·         Strengthen regulations and guidelines for manure and the farms producing it in the Great Lakes region, including setting minimum amounts of land required for manure application per animal raised

·         Make those rules consistent across the eight U.S. states and one Canadian province — Ontario that affect water quality in the Great Lakes region

·         Cover not only operations raising large numbers of animals, but also mid-sized sites, the latter of which are generally not required to be permitted currently

·         Stop allowing farms to evade permitting requirements by subdividing operations so they appear on paper to fall below size thresholds

·         Develop a registry across the Great Lakes region that fills a major data gap by tracking the number of animals being raised and key information about their manure, including where it is applied and how much in each location

·         Earmark funding to help animal feeding operations “make necessary changes” called for in the report

The board also recommended that state and federal governments look to the Netherlands and Denmark for manure-management strategies and get more input from indigenous communities and other members of the public about manure-heavy operations.

In Ohio, years of efforts focused largely on voluntary measures by farmers have yet to rein in nutrient pollution. The result: Annual blooms of algae-like cyanobacteria, which can produce toxins that make people ill, kill pets and in 2014 cut Toledo-area residents off from their drinking water for three days. Lake Erie is Toledo’s water source.   

The city has since spent $53 million on an under-construction ozone treatment system, $6.2 million for a powdered activated carbon system and $800,000 a year on the extra carbon and other agents that remove microcystins, a cyanobacteria toxin.

“It is a profound injustice that the citizens of Toledo have had to clean up a mess that other people have made,” Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz said in an interview.

This article is a collaboration between the Center for Public Integrity, Grist  a nonprofit media organization covering climate, justice and sustainability for a national audience  and The World, a radio program that crosses borders and time zones to bring home the stories that matter.

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