Agriculture is a vital part of our Indiana and our Hancock County economy.
During my years in the Indiana Senate, I served as chair of the committee that dealt with most of the agriculture environmental issues to come before the legislature. We worked diligently in collaboration with the agriculture community to improve environmental standards. Researchers at Purdue often provided valuable input. The industry continues to work with researchers to improve confined feeding/livestock operations with new and innovative techniques.
Earlier this summer in a column, Donna Steele made statements that were misleading if not just incorrect. She compared the treatment of animal waste from confined feeding operations to that of human waste. It is true that human waste is treated, but certainly not all of it.
Human waste is frequently discharged into Indiana waters. Many cities in Indiana have a combined sewer system where sewage and stormwater are carried through a single pipe. During heavy rain events, there is excess flow that often exceeds the capacity of the water treatment plants in these communities. To compensate for this, overflows are installed that allow untreated raw sewage to discharge directly into Indiana waters whenever a rain event exceeds the capacity of the system.
As of 2004, 105 Indiana municipalities had at least some of their wastewater management system combined, meaning about 900 of these overflow outlets existed across the state. In 2008, Indianapolis news outlet WTHR reported that 40 billion gallons of combined sewer overflow are dumped into Indiana waterways each year. Progress has been made over recent years to improve infrastructure to lessen these discharges, but it remains a major issue in Indiana.
In contrast, the livestock industry is held to a zero discharge standard. The construction of a new barn for pork production, for example, must be permitted by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) and must be able to store manure for at least 180 days.
Why so much manure storage? Because farmers need it to properly apply the manure as a fertilizer for their crops and to comply with IDEM’s stringent operational regulations for livestock farms. IDEM (and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) require that manure be applied to cropland at a rate appropriate for the nutrient needs for that crop — and that rate cannot be exceeded. Climatic conditions surrounding the soil are considered before manure can be applied.
Manure is not allowed to leave the barn for any other reason than to be applied to cropland at an appropriate rate. Remember, crops need nutrients, and manure gives them those nutrients from a natural source.
We must also put the scope of using manure for crop nutrients in Indiana into perspective. According to calculations from data submitted to regulators, as of 2014 it took around 3.6 percent of Indiana’s total cropland acres to apply all of the manure from regulated livestock and poultry farms at an appropriate agronomic rate. In Hancock County, only 1.7 percent of the total cropland acres were needed.
One source of pollution to our waterways that is often overlooked but can be a major risk for human health is failing septic systems. Having lived in homes with septic systems for almost 50 years, I am well aware of the care and maintenance a septic system needs to assure it works properly. Many homeowners aren’t so diligent and assume the out of sight, out of mind attitude.
When development occurs in proximity to a confined feeding operation, developers and prospective homeowners are aware, or should be, of the agricultural operation near them. Prospective homeowners should educate themselves on their surroundings before committing to a substantial investment.
The notion that a municipality should control zoning outside its jurisdiction is outdated as determined by numerous public policy discussions in the past. The many reasons against this notion could fill another column.
Beverly Gard served 24 years in the Indiana Senate before retiring in 2012. She is a Hancock County resident. Send comments to dr-editorial@greenfield reporter.com.