Dumped in Indiana

Tons of manure sit in a Randolph County farm field.

Bob Segall/13 Investigates

Agricultural waste has caused environmental devastation to Ohio's largest inland lake. To help prevent further damage, Ohio is shipping hundreds of millions of pounds of poultry manure to Indiana. Some Hoosiers say the massive piles of manure piling up near their homes are toxic - and state officials say there's nothing they can do about it.

Wendy Read is surrounded by farm fields in rural Randolph County, so she's used to the smell of manure.

But the young mother says she and her family can only take so much.

"We've decided we have to leave because everybody's getting sick," she said, staring at the farm house that's been in her husband's family for generations. "What else can we do?"

Read and her family are moving out of state to escape an onslaught of manure that has made breathing in some parts of eastern Indiana unbearable.

In recent years, a commercial hog farm housing more than 11,000 swine moved in across the street. The pungent odor from a massive lagoon of hog manure constantly wafts over Read's property line, easily penetrating closed doors and shut windows.

"I love Indiana and I don't want to leave, but we just didn't feel we have any other choice for the health of our kids and our family," Read said with tears in her eyes, pointing to her daughter's favorite pear tree in the front yard. "It's making my daughter sick and my husband got sick, and all summer we couldn't even go outside to use our property."

The final straw: nearby farmers trucking in tons of poultry manure to fertilize their fields.

Piles from poultry

Across eastern Indiana, piles of poultry manure are reshaping the rural skyline with hundreds of piles rising up from harvested farm fields.

It's become a valuable fertilizer. High in nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, the feather-filled piles of poultry droppings supply farm fields with valuable nutrients.

The odor is indescribable.

"It'll really knock you out," said longtime Randolph County resident Barbara Sha. "My eyes begin to burn, then my throat feels funny and nausea."

Sha created a grassroots organization to fight the growing influence of industrial agriculture in Indiana and the hundreds of super-sized hog, poultry and dairy farms that produce millions of animals – and hundreds of millions of pounds of manure – in Indiana each year.

On a windy October afternoon, Sha is dressed for battle with a gas mask and a high-tech air monitor. The retired nurse and farmer drives to a nearby farm field where contractors are spreading poultry manure in 30 mph winds.

The ammonia emanating from the manure stings eyes and nostrils, and it coats skin, hair and clothing with a thick sweet-musty, nose-wrinkling, mind-stabbing odor that seems to suck oxygen from the air.

"That smell goes for miles and miles and miles. It's horrible," Sha said.

While many Randolph County residents are concerned about the manure's impact on air quality, they are more worried about their water.

Environmental devastation

This summer, just over the border in Ohio, Grand Lake St Marys was devastated by blue-green algae that killed fish, birds, and tourism.

The iridescent algae is blamed for millions of dollars in lost revenue for businesses surrounding Ohio's largest inland lake.

State officials say the algae crisis was a direct result of manure runoff that drained into the shallow lake from area farm fields. To curb the problem – and hopefully save the lake – state officials developed a detailed action plan to improve water quality at Grand Lake St Marys. The plan calls for Ohio to "promote manure hauling" away from the lake's watershed, and it includes using federal funds from the Environmental Quality Incentive Program to help Ohio farmers transport their manure to Indiana.

Ohio's plan is already underway.

Importing manure or trouble?

13 Investigates observed truck after truck filled with manure heading across the state line into Indiana. Some of it is liquid manure from cows and pigs. But most of the manure being trucked and dumped in Indiana is from chickens and turkeys in Mercer and Darke counties. Located along the Ohio-Indiana border, those two counties alone are home to dozens of commercial farms licensed to raise more than 22 million birds.

Bill Knapke, environmental manager for Cooper Farms, took WTHR to a turkey finishing farm in Rose Hill, Ohio, that produces 140,000 turkeys each year. That one farm supplies about 4 million pounds of turkey manure annually, and about 25% of it is shipped to Indiana, according to Knapke.

"The demand is actually higher than the supply. We could sell a lot more manure if we had it," he said, adding that high demand has pushed the price of poultry manure to $25 per ton, compared to $2 per ton a decade ago.

Midwest Poultry Services operates an egg farm with 320,000 laying hens in Fort Recovery, another town along the Indiana-Ohio border. Company president Bob Krouse says those hens produce about 22 million pounds of manure each year. Krouse would not tell WTHR how much is shipped to Indiana, but he said a "manure broker" arranges the sale of manure to farmers in Indiana and Ohio.

"Once we sell it, it's not our responsibility anymore," he said. "It's up to the farmers to make sure they're using it in a way that there's not runoff. I do not know how they do what they do."

With so many chicken and turkey farms in western Ohio – and new federal grant dollars to help transport poultry droppings to Indiana – receiving just a fraction of Ohio's poultry manure translates into some staggering numbers for Indiana.

Indiana farms now receive more than 200-million pounds of Ohio poultry manure each year -- enough to fill more than 6,000 semi trucks – according to an analysis by Eyewitness News.

Most of it goes to farms in Adams, Jay, Randolph, Delaware, Union, Wayne, Henry and Blackford counties. That area of eastern Indiana is where the White River begins, and runoff into the river could eventually make its way south to cities like Indianapolis.

Tainted water

Manure runoff is already a big concern in Randolph County.

That's where Stephanie Pflasterer lives, next door to a farmer who fertilizes his fields with poultry manure.

"He dumped over 35 semi loads of chicken manure right behind our farm and it sat there from April 30th until the 8th of October," she said. "We're surrounded by it, and they spread it everywhere."

Pflasterer decided to get her well water tested by a laboratory in late September after the water developed a foul odor.

"I smelled manure smell in my water and that's what prompted me to take it down there," she said. "They called me the very next day and told me not to drink or cook with the water. It tested positive for E-coli." The lab report states the family's well water is now "bacteriologically unsafe," prompting Stephanie to switch to bottled water.

E-coli bacteria is found in the lower intestine of warm-blooded animals and can cause serious, even life-threatening, gastro-intestinal problems in humans.

Pflasterer's neighbors have since learned their wells are contaminated, too. While no one knows exactly where the E-coli bacteria is coming from, manure from nearby farm fields is a leading suspect. Some of the families believe it explains the stomach problems, kidney infections, asthma, skin rashes and other health problems they've been experiencing.

"One of my neighbors has been very ill for about five months and she doesn't know why she's been so sick," Pflasterer said. "It's very scary for us."

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management says most farmers apply manure to their fields properly, which reduces the risk of environmental trouble. IDEM regulations require piles of manure to be applied within 90 days of delivery to a farm field, and the piles should be covered or bermed to prevent runoff into nearby waterways during heavy rains.

But 13 Investigates saw many manure piles in eastern Indiana that lack runoff protection, and residents in Randolph County report many of those piles sit in farm fields for six months or more, allowing lots of amonia to build up inside. They say complaining to IDEM doesn't really help.

"Right now they don't do anything," Pflasterer said.

She's right.

Regulations "make no sense"

IDEM admits it does not respond to most complaints involving poultry manure, and WTHR discovered why.

Indiana's manure rules do not apply to manure coming from other states. While Indiana manure is regulated, Ohio manure crossing the border to Hoosier farm fields is not.

"We just don't have the authority to regulate or require [farmers] to do certain things with those piles at this point," explained Bruce Palin, IDEM's assistant commissioner of land quality. "It's really how the rules and statute was structured." IDEM officials say they are not aware of any cases in which runoff from a pile of poultry manure contaminated a waterway or caused illness in Indiana.

Those who live near Indiana farms where out-of-state manure sits unregulated for months with no runoff protection say they are frustrated the state cannot do more.

"It makes absolutely no sense," said Sha. "Who cares what state it's from? We need to protect our water."

Palin says he understands the concern.

"It's frustrating for us, too," he said. "It's odd. Currently the material coming from out-of-state is being treated less stringently than what's generated in the state. I don't think we should be saying ‘if it's coming from a farm in Indiana they gotta do this, but coming from out-of-state they don't.'"

What should Hoosiers do about it?

"All I can say at this point is ‘be patient,'" said Palin, whose agency regulates more than 300 Indiana poultry farms licensed to raise 51 million chickens and turkeys. "We're working on it."

IDEM and the Office of the Indiana State Chemist are now developing new rules that would apply to manure on all large Indiana farms – including manure imported from other states. Palin believes the new rules will be developed and implemented by the end of 2011.

For now, Hoosiers like Barbara Sha are traveling rural Indiana to monitor the incoming manure on their own. She's not giving up her gas mask anytime soon.

"What happened at Grand Lake [St. Marys] in Ohio can happen here, too," Sha said. "We need stronger regulations. There's a fine line between fertilizer and waste, and we have to protect our water."

Stephanie Pflasterer nodded her head while pouring a glass of bottled water. "If we don't do more, pretty soon we're going to be the cesspool of the nation."

Click here to see the location of large poultry farms in western Ohio.