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July 14, 2010

From Homeland to Wasteland: Part 2

In the latest issue of All Animals magazine, author David Kirby describes the health and environmental problems caused by concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and the fight against industrial animal production in rural America

All Animals magazine, July/August 2010

  • Barbara Cox doesn't know whether to laugh or cry when her grandchildren call her "The Manure Lady." John McLellan

Editor's note: David Kirby's Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment was published in March by St. Martin's Press. He also wrote the award-winning New York Times bestseller Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic—A Medical Controversy (St. Martin's Press, 2005). A journalist for more than 15 years, he has appeared on numerous television and radio programs and is a contributor to The Huffington Post. Read part one of the series »

by David Kirby

"Manure Lady" vs. Giant Crab Bubbles: Welcome to Eastern Indiana

Barbara Cox doesn't know whether to laugh or cry when her grandchildren call her "The Manure Lady." But she has to admit that the nickname fits. Cox has scrambled around her native Indiana for several years, helping people organize against CAFOs, both those that are incoming and those already in place.

In Indiana, where Gov. Mitch Daniels has vowed to double pork production by 2015, it's not always easy work. But that hardly intimidates Cox: She packs a wallop of energy into her 5-foot-3 frame, and her down-home but serious demeanor has led officials to fear and respect the plucky little grandma from eastern Indiana.

Cox is strongly pro-agriculture and, coming from a dairy family, she knows all about cows.

"I learned that you treat the animals right and you will prosper," she says. "We had the most pampered cows in the county: about 80 to 100 of them."

Now, most dairy cows in Indiana are packed into concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), like one that was threatening Winchester, a small dot in the sprawling cornfields east of Muncie. Union-Go Dairy was storing 21 million gallons of waste in a lagoon lined with synthetic material, to prevent seepage.

But methane and other gases got under the lining, creating an archipelago of six big bubbles towering 20 feet into the air like giant brown popovers. In the summer of 2008, Cox warned officials the crap bubbles could explode into flaming balls of methane, damaging buildings, killing livestock, contaminating wells, and coating nearby acres with a greasy film of liquid cow poop. 

But it wasn't until a Wall Street Journal reporter showed up and wrote about the "bubble-trouble" lagoon that officials ordered the dairy to do something. Owner Tony Goltstein was threatening to pop the bubbles with a knife. But that could unleash a witch's brew of deadly methane, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide into the surrounding area.

"How are they going to safely burst those bubbles?" Cox demanded of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. "It's a huge concern for our health."

The crap bubbles could explode into flaming balls of methane, contaminating wells and coating nearby acres with a greasy film of liquid cow poop. 

Eventually, a team of experts was dispatched to deflate the lagoon, inserting special valves into the bubbles and allowing the dangerous gases to slowly escape.

Cox had warned about CAFO cleanups for years, urging Indiana to require "financial assurance packages" against catastrophic events. But such reform is hard to achieve.

"We've taken bills to the legislature, only to see many stopped or not even heard in committee," she frets. "This year, we had one that would ban spreading manure within two miles of a state park." The biggest spreading weekends are Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day, she notes, when the parks are most in use. 

But even this simple measure faltered, especially after the Indiana Chamber of Commerce opposed it. "I asked them why, when so many small businesses depend upon tourism near the parks," she says. She got no answer.

Another failure "really ticked me off," Cox says: an unsuccessful bill to ensure the proper disposal of dead animals. "When you have a compost pile for dead livestock, it's supposed to be covered and locked, so wild animals don't drag things into people's yards," she says. "And they voted it down—such a simple thing and they made it sound like something at the U.N."

But the Manure Lady won't fade away.

"We have pictures," she warns. "Dead turkeys in creeks, hog heads in backyards, rotting cowhides in gardens. They can't dispute those. They know we worked very hard on this issue."

And they know that Cox and her group, Indiana CAFO Watch, will be back again next time around.

Part One | Part Three | Part Four

This is part two of a four-part series. The entire article is published in the upcoming July/August issue of All Animals magazine.

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