4 new measures would tighten regulation of massive hog confinements

As pork producers exploit weak laws to build and expand large hog confinements across rural Illinois, neighboring farmers have complained their rights are being trampled while waste spills poison local streams and sickening gases ruin families' lives and...

4 new measures would tighten regulation of massive hog confinements

As pork producers exploit weak laws to build and expand large hog confinements across rural Illinois, neighboring farmers have complained their rights are being trampled while waste spills poison local streams and sickening gases ruin families' lives and...

19 April 2017 Wednesday 05:22
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4 new measures would tighten regulation of massive hog confinements

As pork producers exploit weak laws to build and expand large hog confinements across rural Illinois, neighboring farmers have complained their rights are being trampled while waste spills poison local streams and sickening gases ruin families' lives and property values.

But after years of frustration and legislative inaction, lawmakers on Tuesday announced four new bills that would tighten Illinois' lax environmental protections and give local citizens more input in the permitting process, as well as standing to challenge the massive facilities in court.

The bills, proposed in response to the Tribune's August investigation, "The Price of Pork," would represent the first significant reforms to Illinois' 1996 Livestock Management Facilities Act, which has been criticized for failing to keep pace with the dramatic growth of swine confinements. Holding thousands of pigs and sometimes producing millions of gallons of manure annually, the operations now account for more than 90 percent of Illinois' $1.5 billion in annual hog sales.

"What is going on in our rural communities and to many of our farmers and farm families is wrong and unjust and we can do better than this for them," Fulton County farmer Craig Porter said Tuesday at a Springfield news conference held by Democratic state Sen. David Koehler of Peoria, a sponsor of two of the bills.

The price of pork: Cheap meat comes at high cost in Illinois David Jackson

When the sickening odor swept across Matt Heissinger's farmstead, his daughter would sprint from their home to the car. Clinging to the girl's clothes and hair, the smell drove her to tears as she feared becoming a high school outcast.

Heissinger's wife often was forced to stay indoors, suffering...

When the sickening odor swept across Matt Heissinger's farmstead, his daughter would sprint from their home to the car. Clinging to the girl's clothes and hair, the smell drove her to tears as she feared becoming a high school outcast.

Heissinger's wife often was forced to stay indoors, suffering...

(David Jackson)

Porter described his frustrating efforts to halt a proposed 20,000-head hog operation near his homestead — a facility planned by a Wall Street-traded real estate investment trust and an affiliate of leading pork producer Professional Swine Management.

"Repairing the lax rules, ambiguous siting criteria and other large loopholes in the (Illinois law) should have been done years ago to protect family farmers and residents," he said.

Flanked by several farm families from across Illinois, Koehler said he and other lawmakers modeled the new bills on existing laws in nearby livestock-producing states such as Iowa, Indiana and Wisconsin. "This is a common-sense approach. This is not radical," Koehler said.

One bill would require all confinements to register with the state Environmental Protection Agency. Koehler said he was shocked to learn that state officials have no idea how many large hog confinements are operating in the state, or where many of them are located — a loophole that makes it nearly impossible to monitor and regulate the factorylike operations.

"That is something I found alarming. We're going to try and correct that," Koehler said. "We think the state of Illinois needs to have a record of who's doing business in this state. That's not unreasonable. People in rural areas need to know what's really going on in their communities."

A second bill would close a frequently used loophole in Illinois law that allows new confinements to be constructed without a permit when they can be deemed an expansion of previous livestock operations.

The third would require that facilities file waste management plans before they are constructed, and publicly disclose these plans if county officials and local residents request hearings on the proposed operations. Currently in Illinois, any facility housing up to 12,499 grown pigs can begin operations without disclosing that kind of information. The waste plans concern nearby farmers because the facilities apply stored manure to nearby cropland as fertilizer, and overapplication can lead to toxic runoff and devastate the surrounding environment.

Farmer concerned about hog confinements Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune

Dave Thornton, 45, crosses Jordan Creek on his 10-acre property in Fairmount, Ill., on March 28, 2017. The farmer lives 4 to 5 miles from the sites of two proposed hog confinements and is concerned about toxic runoff from manure into nearby Stony Creek.

Dave Thornton, 45, crosses Jordan Creek on his 10-acre property in Fairmount, Ill., on March 28, 2017. The farmer lives 4 to 5 miles from the sites of two proposed hog confinements and is concerned about toxic runoff from manure into nearby Stony Creek.

(Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)

And the final bill would give neighbors standing to challenge the Agriculture Department in court if they think mistakes were made in approving a construction permit. Citizens currently have no recourse once the permit is approved, even if they believe the department's decision was flawed. The bill also would double the amount of time local residents have to request an informational hearing and object to a proposed confinement. Such hearings are held if a local county board requests one or if at least 75 citizens petition. But many farmers and small-town residents told the Tribune they felt the meetings were meaningless and their concerns were ignored or ridiculed.

Koehler said of the state's booming livestock industry: "We're seeing an increase in activity and an increase in frustration."

Both the Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Pork Producers Association declined to comment Tuesday on the four proposed bills, saying they have not reviewed the details of the legislation.

The two organizations carry significant political weight in Springfield and in 2014 shot down a similar, ambitious effort to overhaul the livestock act. They, along with other agriculture groups, argue that large livestock confinements provide jobs in rural counties as well as a market for local grain farmers, and help hold down the market price of the most widely consumed meat in the world.

The Tribune series sparked calls for reform from lawmakers including U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin as well as local efforts to halt or slow the construction of new facilities. The series found that hog waste spills accounted for nearly half of the 1 million fish killed in Illinois water pollution incidents from 2005 to 2014 and impaired 67 miles of rivers and waterways during that time.

Proposed hog confinement killed after rural neighbors speak out Gary Marx and David Jackson

Facing opposition from local farmers, one of the state's largest pork producers has pulled its application to build a hog confinement in downstate Fulton County, handing opponents a rare victory in their efforts to slow the growth of the massive livestock facilities in the state.

The hog producer,...

Facing opposition from local farmers, one of the state's largest pork producers has pulled its application to build a hog confinement in downstate Fulton County, handing opponents a rare victory in their efforts to slow the growth of the massive livestock facilities in the state.

The hog producer,...

(Gary Marx and David Jackson)

Neighboring farmers also said their lives and property values were ruined by noxious gases from the giant confinements. Hog waste releases hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, which can cause respiratory illness when mixed with airborne animal dander and fecal dust, public health studies have found.

"Small-town America here in Illinois along with rural families and businesses are being sold out due to the lack of adequate laws for industrial animal confinement operations," said Heidi Foil, whose home and animal care business are located roughly 2 miles from a pair of proposed 20,000-hog confinements in Vermilion County. Foil said at the news conference that she also fears that waste released from the underground storage pits will ruin a stream that runs through her property.

She said of Illinois: "We've become a lax and cheap place for mass numbers of these factory farms to set up shop."

Matt Howe, an eighth-generation grain and livestock farmer, said he resigned from the Fulton County Farm Bureau's board of directors earlier this year to protest the group's apparent support of a proposed 20,000-head hog confinement about 3,000 feet from his farm and home.

"The land that we use is not just a tool to pad portfolios," Howe said. "It's a living, breathing thing rooted in my community."

After the news conference, Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, an advocacy group, said Koehler is working with a coalition of rural legislators to get the agricultural interests to negotiate.

She called the bills a solid first step. "There's more we'd like to do, but these are reforms we want to see enacted," Walling said.

dyjackson@chicagotribune.com

gmarx@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @poolcar4

Twitter @GaryJMarx

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