Fighting Sea of Manure From Factory Farms, Woman Makes Enemies

Harassment in Clayton, Michigan, is a dead animal tossed on your front porch, a mini-bomb in your mailbox or buckshot fired through a bedroom window.

For Lynn Henning, recent winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, that’s the price of advocacy.

“We’ve brought some pretty bad stuff out to the heartland,” says Henning, 52, whose home is about 45 miles southwest of Ann Arbor.

For the past decade she has been fighting pollutants that spew from factory farms in her area known as “concentrated animal feeding operations,” or CAFOs.

CAFOs surround the Hennings’ own farm. Most of the animals involved are cows -- hundreds, thousands in some cases. They’re crammed into milking assembly lines and rarely see the light of day.

Aside from animal-welfare issues, the problem is waste. A single cow produces the same amount of waste as 23 humans, so thousands of cows in a concentrated area is like a small city, but with no sewage-treatment plant.

“There are 12 CAFOs within a 10-mile radius of us,” Henning says. “There are more than 60 lagoons, with over 400 million gallons of waste.” The lagoons are open pits where the waste sits and ferments before it is sprayed over the fields.

In 2000, Henning co-founded Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan to fight the expansion of these facilities in the state, and later became the Sierra Club’s water sentinel for the area. She reckons she has driven more than a million miles on back roads, testing water and taking photographs, mostly of foul water being piped into cricks (as creeks are known around here), sprayed over fields or just sitting in open fields, rife with pollutants.

Permit Denied

Henning’s tenacity has paid off. In 2008, Michigan denied a would-be CAFO a permit, in part because of water-quality data Henning made public. Other CAFOs have had to pay tens of thousands of dollars in fines for violations, due to both Henning and lawsuits launched by the Sierra Club.

One rainy day, we drive over muddy roads that run between the enormous milk factories not far from her farm. These facilities are relatively new and so look clean from a distance, yet something in the air tells me things aren’t right. As someone who grew up near a small dairy farm, I find the sweet aroma of manure nostalgically pleasant. The acrid, noxious smell here is more reminiscent of industrial New Jersey.

“It’s not so bad today,” Henning says. “The rain is keeping it down.”

Not Just Manure

We stop at a small stream and she jumps out, pulling on a pair of blue surgical gloves to protect herself from the “blood worms and hepatitis” that could be lurking in water. She takes a reading of the oxygen level and records the datum, her mane of silver hair now dripping wet from the rain.

The problem isn’t just the waste. The tons of manure and urine are mixed with chemical solvents and sluiced into the open lagoons, along with all the other horrors attendant to large mammals in tight quarters: antibiotics, blood, hormones, pesticides, spoiled milk, even decaying body parts. The inevitable smell comes with an eye-burning mix of methane, hydrogen sulfide and ammonia.

Then it gets bad. The vile effluent has to go somewhere, or the lagoons would be quickly overwhelmed. Since it is not technically hazardous waste, the stuff is simply sprayed directly onto the fields.

“This,” Henning says with measured disgust, “is the land that produces our food.”

Poisoned In-Laws

The health threats are more than theoretical. Her in-laws, both in their 80s and also farmers, were diagnosed with hydrogen-sulfide poisoning in 2003. Last year, her husband, Dean, 55, had a heart attack in the fields, which he is certain was a direct result of the noxious vapors that pervade the landscape.

“This is not emotional rhetoric,” Henning says. “This is fact.”

The Goldman award netted Henning $150,000, which she says will go to the Sierra Club and the local group she founded. She also plans to buy supplies to get other water monitors set up around the U.S., and we’re going to need them: an estimated 500 million tons of manure are discharged from mega farms every year, and it inevitably ends up in the water.

As for the harassment, Henning shrugs it off. When you go all Erin Brockovich on an industry, feelings will be hurt. Henning admits she was taken aback when her own pastor advised her to stop making waves or consider leaving the church. She chose the latter, something we can all be grateful for.

(Mike Di Paola writes about preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)