Welcome to this week’s edition of Water Heroes. This week we’re talking about Lynn Henning who has gained notoriety due to her persistence in fighting for clean water in Michigan. Since 2000 she has been working to stop water pollution coming from large livestock farms around her home, throughout Michigan, and now in other states in the country. Her advocacy and hard work has earned her the prestigious Goldman Prize in 2010 and the 2012 Planet Defender Award, and she has appeared on a number of TV shows including Real Time with Bill Maher, as well as being in the new movie Last Call at the Oasis. All of this and it’s amazing to think her campaign got started by accident.
Lynn has been farming in Michigan all of her life. She grew up in a rural area on a farm and helped her parents since she was very young. For the past 30+ years Lynn and her husband have owned and ran a 300-acre farm which produces corn and soybeans. All her life the area around where she grew up has been farmed by small, local farmers like the Hennings, but in the past couple of decades this has all changed. Due to America’s large appetite for low cost meat and poultry many small farms have been put out of business and replaced by concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. A CAFO is run like a factory, and the animals are the product. But these animals aren’t treated like animals, they’re treated more like a box of cereal sitting on a shelf waiting to be sent out to a store. At CAFOs the animals live their entire life in an enclosed barn often never seeing the light of day until they’ve been processed and packed. There’s a lot more that can be said on that, but since this isn’t a blog about animal rights I’ll let you read about that on your own.
So what do huge cow factories have to do with water pollution. Well it turns out a lot. These CAFOs can house anywhere from 700 to as many as millions of animals, and those animals, especially cows, produce a lot of poop. A medium sized CAFO can produce as much waste as a city of 69,000 people! The difference is that in that city the waste is processed properly and then discharged, whereas the CAFOs don’t have those regulations in place. So what do the CAFOs do with all that waste? They use high powered sprayers and chemicals to wash all the waste into channels where it ends up in huge open pits. Here’s where we start seeing the problems with water contamination. The mixture of water, chemicals, hormones, bacteria, feces, urine, blood, antibiotics and who knows what else either sit in these pits or are pumped into a truck and then sprayed over fields to act as fertilizer. There are a couple of problems that come out of this; one problem is water pollution which I will be focusing on. But the other that should be mentioned is air pollution. As all of this stuff sits in these pits they let off fumes of methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, not to mention a smell so bad it makes your eyes water. This leads to diseases and sickness in the people that live around the CAFOs and has also led to the CAFOs being labeled as some of the largest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions. These CAFOs are bad news. I haven’t even started talking about the water pollution and have already identified two issues with these factory farms. But enough about all that, let’s start talking about Lynn and water pollution.
Lynn lived a normal, happy life farming with her husband up until the year 2000, and then everything changed. By 2000 there were 12 CAFOs within 10 miles of Lynn’s farm, and 60 of these poop pits holding over 400 million gallons of waste. As is often the case these farms didn’t really have any regulations to abide by. In 2000 a local state park lake was polluted by runoff, and the Hennings were blamed for blowing the whistle on a local CAFO. Although this accusation was false it was the spark that led to all of Lynn’s great work, and the formation of the Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan (ECCSCM). Lynn immediately started gathering information on waste spills and pollution by the CAFOs, taking water samples from every lake, stream, river, ditch and wetland she can find, and soon joined forces with the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter as a volunteer Water Sentinel. With the Sierra Club’s support she developed a water quality monitoring program that focused on the CAFOs, their pollution, and what it was doing to the local waterways. She also used satellite imagery and GPS to map out where the pollution was happening and what waterways were being affected. The results showed a lot of pollution, and in some places the pollution and e-coli was 2000 times the state’s legal limits! She quickly learned that the waterways weren’t the only places that were being polluted. Because of the CAFOs practice of spraying the waste over fields the groundwater in the area was also being affected negatively by this pollution. Over time Lynn compiled a large collection of data on the CAFOs (bigger than Michigan’s regulatory agencies) and went to the government demanding stricter regulations, and for them to be enforced. Amazingly they responded to Lynn. As a result of the data Lynn presented the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) took action. Hundreds of citations were issued to the CAFOs for water quality violations. Taking it even farther, in 2008 the DEQ denied a permit to a CAFO for the first time ever based mainly on Lynn’s research as well as the urging of local residents.
All of this work didn’t come without consequences for Lynn and her family. She is continually being threatened by what can only be assumed to be employees of the CAFOs. Here’s what she has been through. She was trapped in her car on a rural road one day when she was out collecting research by a large truck owned by one of the CAFOs and was only let go after local law enforcement came to her aid. She has been followed and run off the road. She has had dead animals left on her doorstep, in her mailbox, and on her car. Her mailbox was blown up. And the worst of it all came when someone shot out a window at one of her relatives’ house. But as is often the case with great people this did nothing to stop Lynn, and it only made her more dedicated. There have also been health problems for the people around her. Both her mother-in-law and father-in-law live within 1000 feet of a CAFO and have developed hydrogen sulfide poisoning, as have others. There are a number of other health affects that come from living around a CAFO including asthma, bronchitis, tension, depression, sore throat, diarrhea, burning eyes, and also has the potential for “blue baby syndrome” which is a blood disorder that can lead to death.
Today the regulations put into action by Lynn’s hard work continue to hold CAFO’s responsible and with time will lead to clean water for Lynn and everyone in the area. But this doesn’t mean the fight is over. Lynn still goes out and takes water samples and looks at satellite imagery as much as ever to keep the CAFOs from getting back to their old ways. The sad thing is that a normal citizen shouldn’t have to do this. It should be the government out there regulating the CAFOs, but they don’t. Good thing we have people like Lynn to stand up for our rights and to hold these CAFOs accountable for all of the pollution they do to the environment and the health of the people around them, and for that I say thank you! Thank you for reading and as always please leave a comment and let me know what you thought.