Cows on a field.

Dairy cow manure being spread on fields is contaminating rural wells that supply drinking and bathing water, leading to illnesses. (Chris Stephens / AP Photo/Cleveland Plain Dealer)

By Frank James

Anyone who still has an idealized vision of how healthy it is to live in the nation's rural heartland compared with its suburbs or cities should read the latest installment of the New York Times' "Toxic Waters" series which highlights the problem of rural wells that provide drinking and bathing water for farm families being contaminated by farm runoff.

The thrust of the story is that the federal government isn't doing enough to regulate the practice of large farms, especially dairy farms, spreading cow manure of farmland in an attempt to get rid of the material. This is leading to too much cow manure being applied, which is contaminating rural residents' water wells with E. coli and other harmful bacteria and substances.

The piece focuses on Morrison, Wisconsin about 17 miles south of Green Bay. An excerpt:

n Morrison, more than 100 wells were polluted by agricultural runoff within a few months, according to local officials. As parasites and bacteria seeped into drinking water, residents suffered from chronic diarrhea, stomach illnesses and severe ear infections.
"Sometimes it smells like a barn coming out of the faucet," said Lisa Barnard, who lives a few towns over, and just 15 miles from the city of Green Bay.
Tests of her water showed it contained E. coli, coliform bacteria and other contaminants found in manure. Last year, her 5-year-old son developed ear infections that eventually required an operation. Her doctor told her they were most likely caused by bathing in polluted water, she said.

The contaminants sprayed onto fields fall through a regulatory floor crack, they aren't covered by the Clean Water Act of 1972 which only regulates material that flows through pipes and ditches.

The NYT piece continues:

To address this problem, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has created special rules for the biggest farms, like those with at least 700 cows.
But thousands of large animal feedlots that should be regulated by those rules are effectively ignored because farmers never file paperwork, E.P.A. officials say.
And regulations passed during the administration of President George W. Bush allow many of those farms to self-certify that they will not pollute, and thereby largely escape regulation.

One of the piece's best moments comes out of reporter Charles Duhigg's interview of the owner of a large dairy farm, Dan Natzke. But first Duhigg relates an anecdote he appeared to witness.

In June, Mr. Natzke explained to visiting kindergarteners that his cows produced 1.5 million gallons of manure a month. The dairy owns 1,000 acres and rents another 1,800 acres to dispose of that waste and grow crops to feed the cows.
"Where does the poop go?" one boy asked. "And what happens to the cow when it gets old?"
"The waste helps grow food," Mr. Natzke replied. "And that's what the cow becomes, too."
His farm abides by dozens of state laws, Mr. Natzke said.
"All of our waste management is reviewed by our agronomist and by the state's regulators," he added. "We follow all the rules."
But records show that his farm was fined $56,000 last October for spreading excessive waste. Mr. Natzke declined to comment.

While the story doesn't get into the contamination of produce like spinach by E. coli bacteria, which occurred in 2006, that is clearly an additional risk that makes this practice not only a threat to rural families whose wells are contaminated but also potentially to consumers in far away cities since some of the local aquifers used for irrigation could theoretically be contaminated by the same practice.

The piece is well worth reading.

categories: Food

12:17 - September 18, 2009