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Report: Animal feeding operations without permits are polluting the Lake Erie basin

By Rebecca Thiele, IPB News | Published on in Agriculture, Business, Environment, Government
A concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) like this one in Tippecanoe County requires a permit, but not all large farms in the state do. (FILE PHOTO: Annie Ropeik/IPB News)

new report shows large, unpermitted animal farms in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio could be causing most of the nutrient pollution in the Lake Erie basin. That pollution can fuel toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie — threatening the drinking water for at least 11 million people.

If you have at least 300 cows, 600 pigs or 30,000 chickens in Indiana — you have to get a permit from the state to manage manure on the farm.

But the report by the Environmental Working Group estimated more than 60 percent of the manure that makes its way into the Lake Erie basin comes from animal feeding operations that don’t have enough livestock to need a permit. That means no one is keeping track of where all that manure goes.

“So more needs to be done to monitor these unpermitted AFOs (animal feeding operations) that are smaller and actually produce most of the manure phosphorus in the basin,” said Anne Schechinger, EWG’s Midwest director.

EWG found 116 animal feeding operations within the Western Lake Erie Basin whose owners would need to go farther than 3 miles to find a field available for manure spreading without phosphorus over-application, and 55 operations whose owners would need to go farther than 5 miles. (EWG via NAIP aerial photography, ODA, EGLE, IDEM and Midwest Plan Service)

Indiana does have stricter permitting requirements than Michigan and Ohio. Even so, about 78 percent of animal feeding operations in Indiana’s portion of the Lake Erie basin don’t have a permit.

The EWG report said manure from these farms usually gets spread on cropland nearby, but in places that have multiple large animal farms — the land likely can’t hold all of that manure. That can lead to more runoff that pollutes local waterways.

Schechinger said states like Indiana can use EWG’s maps to find crop farmers who live near these operations.

“Billions of dollars are being spent on conservation practices in the basin. So this new research could really help pinpoint the farm fields, the farmers to talk to in the basin where this funding could have the biggest bang for its buck,” she said.

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Schechinger said conservation practices like no-till can help keep that manure on the land.

Indiana could choose to lower the number of animals needed for a permit, but the Indiana Department of Environmental Management said lawmakers would have to make that change.

Contact reporter Rebecca at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.