Toxic fumes, blisters & brain damage : The cost of doing business?
By: Rebecca Lerner - An investigative report

Willet Dairy’s cows are lined up together, eating feed, in one of the farm’s barns. (Photo by Rachel Philipson)
Karen Strecker is bracing. She's about to turn on the faucet, and there's a chance liquid manure is going to stream from the spout.

"I've been taking a bath and actually had cow shit pour into the tub,'' Strecker says, matter-of-factly. She uses well water. "It's nasty."

Yet the threat of a sewage bath pales in comparison to a more dangerous problem: Breathing poisonous fumes. After years living next to Willet Dairy, the largest industrial farm in the state, Strecker and her neighbors in Genoa are reporting the kinds of health problems eco-watchdogs lose sleep over, from blistering eyelids to brain damage. Manure is known to release gases that, in high concentrations, are linked to those scary symptoms.

Strecker's plight takes on national relevance as the EPA prepares to roll back air-pollution-reporting requirements for industrial animal farms like Willet in October - even as environmentalists warn that regulation is already too lax in New York.

The Road to Industrial Farming

Located next to Lansing in Cayuga County, Genoa is a rural town with sprawling hills and a population of 1,914. Its main street is spare but quaint, with an antiques shop, a fire hall advertising a NASCAR event, and a church with the motto, "Exercise Daily: Walk With God."

The roadsides here are dotted with farms. Willet Dairy's giant white barns sit close to Route 34, the main thoroughfare. Pickup trucks and heavy machinery sit in dusty lots.

With 7,800 cattle, Willet is a relative behemoth. The other two major livestock operations in town are Osterhoudt Farm, with 470 cattle, and Ridgecrest Dairy L.L.C., with 1,090, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the agency charged with regulating agricultural pollution.

Willet began in 1974 as a small, family-owned operation that grew steadily over the years, acquiring its neighbors' property and expanding as American agricultural practices became increasingly mechanized and efficient. Today, Willet spans approximately 6,300 acres over four sites, including a facility on Route 34 near Lansing, one on Lane Road in Locke, Belltown Dairy in King Ferry and W.D. Corey Dairy. "Why larger dairies?" said David M. Galton, a dairy management professor at Cornell University. "Well, why Wegmans? Target and Circuit City and Home Depot and Lowe's - they're doing it to dilute out cost and to maintain or improve standard of living. It's like every other segment of our economy. Larger dairies are trying to address the ever-rising cost of producing milk and standard of living."

In 1993, farms with 200 or more cattle made up 3.6 percent of the state's dairies, according to USDA statistics. By 2002, they made up 9 percent.

"The larger the dairy farm, the lower the costs are. And so, as the costs keep rising - fuel costs, feed costs, taxes - it puts more economic pressure on the individual farms to produce more milk,'' Galton said. "If you take the milk price of 1980 and adjust it for inflation, the milk price would be $38.92 per 100 pounds. The milk price today is approximately $20 per 100 pounds."

Galton is director of PRO-DAIRY, a government-funded outreach arm of Cornell University that works to increase profitability in the dairy industry and educate farmers on the latest manure-management techniques.

Willet Dairy is a privately held business headed by Dennis Eldred, a Genoa resident. The company is listed as Willet Dairy L.P.; Willet Dairy L.L.C.; and Willet Dairy Inc., in legal documents. Eldred did not return phone calls to his home and office and declined to be interviewed through his attorney, David Cook of Nixon Peabody L.L.P.

Scott, Todd, Susan and Peter Eldred are also listed as co-owners of Willet, according to 2005 USDA records as compiled by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. Todd, Susan and Peter Eldred are "all family members, members of the LLC," according to Cook. Neighbors identified them as Dennis Eldred's adult children. Scott Eldred is Dennis Eldred's brother, and his status with the company is not clear at this time because Scott Eldred is in the Carribbean working as a missionary, Cook said. Town Supervisor Stuart Underwood has known Dennis Eldred and his family for decades and described them as "good people.''

Willet Operations Officer Lyn Odell, who spoke to the Ithaca Times, declined to discuss the company's annual profits. Public records show Willet received $1,114,807.88 in USDA subsidies from 1995 to 2005, according to a database maintained by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.

Property tax records show Willet paid more than a third of the locally funded portion of Genoa's 2007 town budget.

Large-scale dairies like Willet are known colloquially as factory farms, a term that refers to the industrialized nature of their daily operations. The state Department of Environmental Conservation refers to large dairies as "concentrated animal feeding operations," or CAFOs, because they confine their animals in warehouse-like facilities for more than 45 days each year. If you peer into Willet's barns, some of which are open-air and visible from the roads, you will observe bovine faces neatly aligned, as far back as the eye can see.

At dairy farms in general, cows are impregnated once every 13 to 14 months in order to keep milk production at a profitable level, Galton said. But whereas small farms may house cows and calves together, it is standard practice for CAFOs to isolate calves in individual crates for the six weeks immediately following birth, Galton said, in order to avoid compromising their fragile immune systems.

This is a practice assailed by animal welfare groups, including Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, as cruel. It irks Strecker as well. Down the street from her house, small evergreens do little to block the view of the crates, arranged in orderly rows along a grassy plain that stretches several football fields in length. At night, floodlights illuminate the scene.

"We do what we have to do to improve standard of living and dilute out cost," Galton said of the industry.

To address the ecological impact of thousands of cows relieving themselves in one area, large dairies like Willet are required by law to manage the excrement using techniques developed in large part by Cornell University.

Willet cows produced 157,126 tons of manure in 2006, according to the DEC.

Willet liquifies the untreated waste and pumps it into manure lagoons, as is standard practice among large-scale dairies. There it sits - some hundreds of feet from Strecker's home - uncovered and decomposing, releasing hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous, acidic gas known to burn the eyes and respiratory tract, until some of Willet's laborers spray it onto farm fields with tanker trucks.

Toxic Gases

The stench in Strecker's yard makes you cough at first, then your eyes water and nausea sets in. Dizziness knocks you over if you stick around for more than five minutes, and if the wind is blowing the right way, you might find yourself nursing a headache. Of course, that's just if you're visiting on a mild day. The effect is more severe if you actually live there.

"No matter which way the wind blows, we're screwed,'' Strecker says.

Strecker has been on a constant dose of antibiotics for years to treat chronic respiratory problems caused by exposure to her surroundings, according to a series of letters written by her doctor, Ahmad Mehdi of Groton Family Practice. The letters span from Aug. 15, 2000 to Jan. 22, 2007.

"Do people get sick when manure gets spread? Yes, it's a fact," Mehdi told the Ithaca Times. "It's the huge, mass production. When you have 10,000 cows in one place, that's a lot of manure. Everybody knows that. But it's the way of life around here."

Cayuga County is home to 28 industrial farms, and Tompkins has 10, according to the DEC. There are more than 600 such facilities in the state. Detailed information about each is available online at www.factoryfarmmap.org, a website compiled by the research and advocacy group Food & Water Watch.

You can't see manure lagoons from the roadsides, but you can smell them, and the dangers of their fumes have been documented. A 2002 study by the University of Iowa and Iowa State University examined the impact of aerial ammonia and hydrogen sulfide on residents living near industrial hog farms after former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack requested information on their public health impact. The researchers noted that aerial ammonia and hydrogen sulfide gas - both routine CAFO emissions - are poisonous in high concentrations, causing sinusitis, asthma, chronic bronchitis, inflamed mucous membranes of the nose and throat, headaches, muscle aches and pains in those who live or work nearby.

The National Association of Clean Air Agencies - which represents local, state, federal and agencies - cites manure-pit emissions containing hydrogen sulfide and ammonia for the deaths of at least two dozen people working or living near the operations in the Midwest over the past 30 years.

"The release of toxic substances from manure in amounts dangerous to human health is not a theoretical exercise - people have been killed,'' said the NACAA's Catharine Fitzsimmons, in testimony before the U.S. Senate on Sept. 6, 2007.

A June 2006 fact sheet put out by PRO-DAIRY on health and safety issues describes hydrogen sulfide as "a poisonous, acidic gas that can kill in a matter of seconds," "accumulates in low, confined spaces" and dissolves "rapidly in eye moisture and in the respiratory tract."

Yet the DEC does not closely monitor toxic emissions from livestock farms. DEC spokesperson Lori O'Connell said the fumes are regarded "as either 'trivial activities' ... or as 'fugitive emissions' in the case of outdoor manure piles and waste lagoons. Both of these designations have the effect of relieving farms in New York from needing an air permit or minor source registration."

Brain Damage and Poisoned Eyes

If you ask Fred Coon, Strecker's 82-year-old father, why he's missing his lower eyelids, he will tell you about the time he "got my eyes poisoned."

"It was a terrible process,'' Coon said. "I was raking leaves by the barn, and my eyes started stinging. I came inside and looked in the mirror, and there were a million little tiny blisters over here, and here,'' he says, pointing to the magenta tissue his lower eyelids used to cover. The blisters burst and became infected, prompting doctors to amputate the thin flaps of skin containing them.

Neighbor Connie Mather, a perky former schoolteacher from Philadelphia who owns a property around the corner, also had a run-in with the blisters. In her case, they converged on the inside of her throat and nasal passages.

But Mather had another cause for alarm. In 2004, a medical expert diagnosed her teenage son, Samuel, with irreversible brain damage caused by exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas.

The physician was Dr. Kaye Kilburn, a professor at the University of Southern California who has published 61 peer-reviewed papers on neurobehavioral toxicology. Kilburn is president and director of Neuro-Test Inc., a company that evaluates chemical exposure for lawsuits and disability claims. Kilburn also diagnosed Connie Mather and Coon with neurological damage from the fumes.

During the evaluations, Kilburn reviewed a 15-page questionnaire on each patient's medical history and administered 43 different tests, according to legal documents.

"Each patient's brain impairment has been caused by exposure to hydrogen sulfide," Kilburn wrote. "None of the patients have been exposed [to] other significant chemical exposures, and none of the patients have [sic] suffered spontaneous or associated neurological or psychiatric disease. After analyzing of other possible causes for brain impairment [sic], I found that for each patient the clinical signs of all possible alternative causes are absent."

Kilburn told the Mathers to vacate their property immediately. The family is renting elsewhere.

Angered into action, Mather became a founding member of Neighbors United for the Finger Lakes, an anti-CAFO organization with membership in a national coalition called the Dairy Education Alliance. She worries about plans for an 84,000-head cattle CAFO in St. Lawrence County - an operation that would be more than 10 times the size of Willet.

A Losing Lawsuit, A Bitter Fight

Strecker spends her days taking care of her father, Fred Coon. Both retired carpenters, they live on a 7-acre property with a main house, a trailer, a garage decorated with Coon's artwork and a muddy stream in the backyard. The land has been in the family since the 1800s. Coon still sleeps in the house he built in the 1940s. His late wife, and Strecker's mother, Pearl Coon, spent her last days here.

In the good old days, the air here smelled like lilac trees, flowers grew in the garden and marathon barbecues brought the town together, Coon said. They even had neighbors. But that was before Willet expanded. Now they're surrounded by Willet on three sides.

"I'm just angry they took our lives away,'' Strecker says. "I can't even get a friggin' clean glass of water."

To no avail, Strecker and Mather tried complaining about Willet to the state DEC; Office of the New York State Attorney General; New York State Soil and Water Committee; Cayuga County Health & Human Services Department; former New York Governors Eliot Spitzer and George Pataki; the U.S. EPA; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; federal and local legislators; the New York State Police; the Cayuga County Sheriff's Department; and the Genoa town supervisor.

"They all say they'll 'look into it,'" Strecker says. "Nobody cares."

Frustrated, the neighbors tried the legal arena, banding together to file a citizen's lawsuit alleging violations of the Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Rivers and Harbors Act, and the New York State Environmental Conservation Law. Suing Willet were Karen Strecker; Fred Coon and his late wife Pearl Coon; Connie Mather and her husband Scott Mather; and three other neighbors, Karen and Kenneth Keppel and Dale Mangan, according to legal documents.

After five years of litigation, the case was dismissed in July. Their attorney is Gary Abraham, a T-shirt-wearing environmentalist who works out of a room in his house in Allegany, N.Y., and who took the case at his own expense. Willet Dairy was represented by attorney David Cook of the firm Nixon Peabody L.L.P., a 700-attorney powerhouse with offices in 17 cities, including Rochester and Shanghai, China.

Judge Frederick J. Scullin Jr. of the Northern District of New York dismissed the suit, ruling in Willet's favor that the farm's neighbors did not have the legal authority to bring an enforcement action. This leaves the door open for the neighbors to try again in another jurisdiction.

Abraham is challenging the court decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Judicial Circuit. Both Abraham and Cook have filed briefs; oral arguments are expected to begin in May.

Abraham said he is optimistic, bolstered by a Jan. 15 decision by a Michigan appellate court reaffirming the power of citizen suits to enforce Clean Water Act violations.

On behalf of Willet, Cook described the dairy as "a leader in environmental stewardship." Inaction by the broad array of local, state and federal government agencies bolsters the argument that Willet did not violate any laws, Cook said. He called the neighbors' allegations of pollution and detrimental health effects "utter nonsense."

"Now, do I believe these people believe it? Absolutely. But the science doesn't back it up," said Cook. "When we went out to hire experts to tell us what the levels of exposure were, do you know what the levels were? Non-detect."

Researchers took samples of soil, air and water at Willet and then extrapolated the results to estimate what Willet's neighbors encountered, Cook said. When the Ithaca Times asked to see the data, Cook declined to release it. "We are still in the midst of litigation," Cook said.

Odell, the Willet employee, said he believes the company is being subjected to unreasonable scrutiny.

During a recent four-day-long surprise inspection of Willet in November, the DEC found that Willet "continues to be a well-managed and operated dairy" in "satisfactory" compliance with permit requirements, according to a Dec. 11, 2007, letter sent to Dennis Eldred from the DEC's Environmental Program Specialist Scott D. Cook.

"We don't farm any different than anybody else does up and down this road," Odell said, referring to Route 34. "This is about the nature of our business, about how we farm. It's not about Willet. It's about the dairy industry."

While Genoa's other two CAFOs, Osterhoudt and Ridgecrest, have never been cited for environmental violations by the DEC, Willet has paid for two. On March 8, 2001, the DEC fined Willet $25,000 for leaking "a significant amount of manure" into the Cayuga Lake watershed when a pipe burst, resulting in a fish kill and a water quality violation, the DEC said. The company paid $15,000; the remainder of the penalty was suspended due to satisfactory compliance with clean-up efforts, the DEC's O'Connell said.

On Dec. 11, 2006, the DEC fined Willet $2,500 after manure spilled from an overturned tanker, leaking into a tributary of Salmon Creek in the Cayuga Lake watershed. The company paid just $500 of that amount; $2,000 was suspended because Willet complied with the clean-up to DEC's satisfaction, O'Connell said.

From January 2005 through June 2007, the DEC filed 30 enforcement actions against CAFOs.

The Sierra Club, Food & Water Watch, the National Resources Defense Council and other national environmental organizations have long criticized industrial farms as major polluters, particularly because of the run-off problems associated with liquid manure. A 1998 study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of nine large Iowa CAFO sites turned up chemical pollutants, pathogens, bacteria, nitrates and parasites in lagoons and other areas in and around the sites.

In an effort to mitigate pollution, CAFOs are required to file annual reports with the DEC, and the agency sends regulators to inspect the facilities once a year. However, the agency does not keep farms' waste management plans on file, and the documents are not available for public view. The Sierra Club, in its 2005 report "Wasting New York State," says this makes enforcement difficult.

It's a familiar refrain from environmentalists: There are too many loopholes; too little oversight. Or as Abraham put it: "The system is broken."


©Ithaca Times 2008