Indiana residents fight back against imported manure


Mahlon Whitaker stares at the small lake in his backyard and shakes his head.

"I grew up here," he says, pointing to the Wayne County property his family has owned for generations. "It's worth fighting for."

Whitaker is worried the scenic property will be devastated by a poultry manure storage facility that will soon be built across the street. By the time Whitaker learned about it, the facility had already been approved due to few regulations.

"A neighbor called and said, ‘Do you know what they're doing next to your field?' There was no notice. No notification. No nothing. The facility is going to be built just 200 feet from my property line," he explained.

Approximately 250 other homes are also within a half mile of the storage site, according to neighbors. The facility will be nearly 10,000 square feet, half the length of a football field and will hold approximately 3,000 cubic yards of poultry waste, according to documents obtained from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.  Because the owners of the manure barn do not plan to store more than 5,000 cubic yards of poultry waste on site at any given time, the facility falls below the threshold that requires state oversight. IDEM will not regulate the facility.

"It's on a scale unlike anything that's been seen around here…so it's unconscionable with the things that are in [poultry manure] that it should be allowed," Whitaker said.

To understand why he is so concerned, consider the findings of WTHR's 2010 "Dumped in Indiana" investigation.

Environmental devastation

Three years ago, 13 Investigates exposed truckloads full of poultry manure crossing the Ohio state line and heading straight for Indiana farm fields.

Ohio poultry farms began exporting an estimated 200 million pounds of manure to Indiana annually following an environmental disaster along the shores of Grand Lake St. Mary in western Ohio.  The massive lake, one of the largest in the Midwest, was devastated by blue green algae that killed fish, birds and local tourism. The algae crisis, according to state officials, resulted from manure runoff that drained into the lake from area farm fields. 

To save Grand Lake St. Mary, the state of Ohio developed an action plan. It included hauling manure away from the watershed and using federal funds to transport it to Indiana. That's what's been happening ever since.  Based on statistics provided by Ohio poultry farms, it is estimated Indiana now accepts more than 6,000 semi trucks of poultry waste from Ohio annually.

Farmers consider it a highly-valued fertilizer. And it's easy to tell when poultry manure is being used. Waste from turkeys and chickens can have an unbearable odor, caused by toxic levels of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide.

That's why residents in Wayne County are both nervous and angry.

Rallying support

Concerns over air quality, water quality and property values have prompted them to fight back. And because the state has done little in the past three years to address the influx of manure from other states, residents looking for protection have now shifted the battle to the local level.

Whitaker worked with Indiana CAFO Watch, a non-profit organization that promotes responsible growth and oversight of concentrated animal feeding operations, to organize two community meetings, warning neighbors about the newly-approved manure storage facility. The meetings helped raise awareness and gather hundreds of signatures to prevent future facilities without public input.

"This is not about putting the farmer out of business," Whitaker said. "What we're asking is - it shouldn't be next to 250 homes and ruin the property values for people here."

At one of the meetings, Grand Lake St. Mary resident Bill Ringo explained his neighbors lost 50 percent of their homes' value after the lake and local economy were damaged by the impact of poultry manure.

"We've had homes over there that have been for sale for three, four, five years," Ringo told Wayne County residents. "Many of those homes haven't even had a single offer. It's not getting better."

"Your problem is going to become our problem," said Phil Fplum, who attended the meeting to share his concerns.

Last week, residents shifted their fight to the Wayne County planning commission, asking commissioners to stand up for homeowners who don't know where else to turn.

"All my neighbors, we just feel hopeless," said Matt Doulen, who lives in a subdivision near the Wayne County manure storage site.  "We feel helpless like we can't do anything about it. If this was your kids' home or your house or your neighborhood, how would you feel about this?" he asked commissioners.

"People are concerned. They want their water and aquifers kept safe. They don't want their property values to go down," said Indiana CAFO Watch founder Barbara Sha-Cox. "I'm all for farming, but the air and the water belong to everyone."

New policies drafted

County officials seemed interested in helping. They're now looking to draft a new ordinance that would limit how close manure storage sites can be to residential areas.

"I'll have proposed language at our next meeting," pledged Wayne County Planner Steve Higinbotham. "This will be the agenda item for further discussion and possibly some decisions."

While good news for residents who live near Milton, it likely comes too late to reverse what's already been done. 

The manure storage facility planned for their backyard is already approved.  Whitaker hopes the small lakes nearby won't turn into Grand Lake St Marys.

"This water behind me is ultimately the water Connersville will drink. It's just three miles from here," he said. "It's really a shame. We are still trying to do everything publically that we can to stop this."

Wayne County officials say they will be working with their counterparts in Fayette County to develop new policies for addressing manure storage facilities. Fayette County is also studying the issue.