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Factory Farming in Illinois: Polluted Waters and Communities

August 11, 2022

Factory farming practices in Illinois negatively impact local waterways and rural communities.

While most known for the bustling city of Chicago, the state of Illinois is also known for its agricultural products. The agricultural industry contributes an annual $19 billion dollars to the Illinois economy. Of this total, the animal agriculture industry generates an estimated $2,470,000,000 or about 13 percent. These livestock operations/factory farms, formally referred to as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), are a significant source of income, especially for the rural economies of Illinois. There are about 30,000 livestock operations in the state, with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimating 500 to be large-scale CAFOs: operations with animal populations ranging from the thousands to over a million, depending on the species. According to the Illinois Census of Agriculture (2017), the state of Illinois farmed 5,258,119 hogs/pigs and 1,130,993 cattle/calves. There were also a variety of other species being farmed, which included hundreds of thousands of broiler chickens, turkeys, and lambs, all contributing to pollution of local waterways and other environmental hazards. 

CAFO Runoff and its Impacts on Waterways

Factory farming can impact surrounding water sources, such as rivers or lakes. Animal waste from factory farms can run off to pollute waterways, seriously harming biodiversity and the overall quality. This runoff can come from fields, barns, spills from equipment, or leaks from lagoons designed to hold animal waste. Sometimes, manure is intentionally sprayed or dumped into waterways as a form of removal. Nearly 885 billion tons of waste is produced on factory farms per year; it often contains many dangerous and harmful toxins which can severely impact water sources. These toxic substances include nitrogen, arsenic, phosphorus, pathogens/antibiotics, and ammonia. When released into the waterways, waste can significantly impact the smell of the river, threaten species that are not accustomed to these chemicals, and change the composition of the waters as well. For example, pollution from commercial fertilizers and animal waste in Illinois is a significant contributor to the “dead zone” of the Gulf of Mexico—6,000 square miles of water where aquatic life cannot exist due to the low oxygen levels. 

Additionally, the EPA recognizes CAFOs to be a top 10 leading cause of river and lake pollution in Illinois. Over 670 miles of streams and 25,000 acres of lakes have been negatively impacted by factory farms. According to state documents, there have been at least 80 cases of intense water pollution from factory farms in the state since 2002. In addition, there are also many pollution issues that are never recorded or are disregarded. Hog farms are a major source of water pollution due to the large amounts of manure produced. Illinois hog farms rank fourth nationally in pig and hog population and there have been numerous cases of severe water pollution due to these hog farms. For example, in August of 2012, citizens of Iroquois County noticed the waters of Beaver Creek turned black and many fish came up dead. At least 63,000 fish were dead within days and the creek continued to darken like “ink” according to a retired farmer. An Illinois EPA investigation revealed the source to be a waste spill from Hopkins Ridge Farms, a CAFO with a population of over 8,000 hogs. There were never any reparations from the farm for the damage that polluted the creek and released awful stenches into the nearby communities. Hopkins Ridge failed to acknowledge the damage until the community members spoke out. 

There are many other cases of Illinois waterways being polluted by factory farming. This includes areas of McDonough County, where manure from a hog farm turned into brown sludge, contaminating the air and building up ten inches worth of waste in Troublesome Creek. In Woodford County, Panther Creek experienced two instances of manure spills in just three years; the Illinois EPA (IEPA) found swine waste several feet deep, discoloring the water and killing the aquatic life in the creek. Taylor Creek in Macoupin County currently has 24 miles of uninhabitable water due to the amount of manure that has been spilled into it. Manure can build up and sink to the bottom of water sources, making it difficult to remove and allowing continued pollution. Even with initial intervention from the Illinois EPA, many pollution cases are not further investigated or referred for proper legal action. 

Current Policies to Regulate CAFOs and their Limitations 

The process of approval for the construction of CAFOs requires many steps. The guidelines for building a CAFO are established by the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) in the Illinois Livestock Facilities Act (LMFA). If the agricultural department approves of construction, the constructors must acquire a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) if over an acre of land is going to be affected by this construction. Other actions may be required, though this can vary. CAFOs that discharge their waste into waterways may need to apply for an NPDES permit, though many are able to avoid this by simply claiming that they do not pollute waterways. If CAFOs are found illegally discharging, they may be required to obtain an NPDES permit. 

Once the CAFO is built and running, it becomes the role of the IEPA to monitor the factory farm for any pollution, administer pollution permits, and pursue legal action if requirements are not met. On a federal level, factory farms are exempt from the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. These two acts are the primary legislation to monitor air and water pollution on a national scale. The exemption of factory farms allows them to avoid any monitoring on a federal level by the EPA. This lack of federal regulation allows factory farms to continue dangerous, polluting practices that would be illegal for other industries.

Rural county boards are able to hold meetings to discuss the building of CAFOs in their communities if the proposed factory farm exceeds 1000 farmed animals or will use waste lagoons. This way, they are able to discuss the decision of the factory farm in their county and can share their thoughts with the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) and whether or not the CAFO follows legislative rules. However, this is the only opportunity that community members have to speak out against the construction of CAFOs. There is no structure for rural input once CAFOs are active. In addition, even when communities resist the construction of CAFOs, sometimes their demands are ignored. In Fulton County, for example, when farmers publicly opposed the construction of CAFOs, the Illinois Department of Agriculture failed to acknowledge or speak on these concerns when questioned. 

Rural communities and organizations have criticized the enforcement of these state regulations regarding CAFOs. In 2008 and 2009, the Illinois Coalition for Clean Air and Water (ICCAW) criticized the IEPA for failing to regulate NPDES permits properly. The federal Environmental Protection Agency branch found that the Illinois branch did not meet the program requirements. The Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) has also been criticized for approving the construction of factory farms that do not meet state regulations or were opposed by rural communities. Current policies allow factory farms to determine whether or not they should apply for a water pollution permit and avoid receiving external evaluation by environmental agencies. This allows for many CAFOs that are polluting waterways to go unnoticed and unchecked. In 2011, the Illinois EPA only inspected 189 of the 30,000 livestock operations in the state. The lack of enforcement on inspections allows for polluting CAFOs to go unnoticed. In general, there is also very poor tracking of CAFOs throughout the state; of the 500 large CAFOs thought to be active, the state only knew the locations of 30% of them in 2004. In addition to lack of location, many other statistics on factory farms go untracked as well, including the number of livestock, the areas inspected, and whether they have the proper permits.

In order for proper and accurate regulation of CAFOs, it is clear that there must be stronger enforcement of environmental protection laws as well as strict tracking and reporting of all the active factory farms in Illinois. 

Local Communities are Fighting for Change 

Residents near CAFOs experience air pollution, water depletion, and loss in property home value. People are fighting against the lack of regulation against CAFOs in their communities, serving as a voice for resistance and change. For example, in 2021, citizens in Mason County, Illinois, strongly resisted the construction of a Fanter Farm CAFO which was to be built over the Sole Source Mahomet Aquifer. This aquifer is the main source of drinking water for 500,000 residents. The proposed CAFO was to house 2,480 hogs and generated widespread concern for the negative impact on the aquifer, property values, and the health risks to the communities nearby. Various Illinois residents and members of Mason County Concerned Citizens (MCCC) presented their concerns to the Farm Service Agency (FSA), the organization backing the CAFO. 

Karen Hudson, who is a senior regional representative at the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, voiced her concerns about the development of the Fanter Farm CAFO. She explained, “The MCCC coalition vows to remain vigilant in their efforts to preserve the quality of life in their community. They have joined with others including the statewide Illinois Coalition for Clean Air and Water to educate the public and elected officials about the devastating impacts of loosely regulated CAFOs on communities.” 

Before the construction could proceed, however, the Farm Service Agency government loan to fund the CAFO was terminated on December 23, 2021. 

There are many other examples of rural communities coming together to resist CAFOs. In Marshall County, citizens rallied together to protest against the construction of a mega hog factory, which would contain almost 20,000 hogs near the county’s creek and produce 10 million gallons of waste per year. They were supported by the Prairie Rivers Network, which works to support Illinois residents in speaking out against factory farms. In 2013, citizens in Jo Daviess County stopped the construction of what would have been the largest dairy farm in the state, which an attorney of Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water (ICCAW) declared as a major victory against the agribusiness giants. 

Another organization, the Rural Residents for Responsible Agriculture, consists of farmers, artists, truck drivers, nurses, contractors, and academics from rural West Illinois. The group successfully prevented the development of a hog farm in 2013 which would have held 18,000 hogs near their homes.. The group is still active today, advocating for the voices of the rural community to be heard. 

There are many other county-based movements gaining momentum to speak against and raise awareness of CAFOs in rural Illinois. These include the Citizens Against Factory Farming (Fulton County), Concerned Residents Against Pig Confinements (Ogle County), Menard Citizens for Clean Air and Water (Menard County), and the Coalition Against Factory Confinements (Henderson County). Many rural residents in Illinois are coming together to protect their communities and speak out against the negative consequences of CAFO development. 

However, it is important to note that despite the many communities speaking out against factory farms, there are still many that do not have the capacity or resources to do so. In fact, factory farms are often built around populations that lack the influence to resist the animal agriculture industry. These vulnerable populations are often lower-income communities and communities of color. They often include undocumented workers as well. The lack of economic mobility and social power restricts these communities from speaking out. They are often subject to severe air and water pollution from surrounding CAFOs, which have significant health repercussions

Community-based participation and activism are crucial going forward and, coupled with stronger legal frameworks, can significantly limit the negative consequences of active CAFOs while preventing the development of new ones. These actions are a step forward in protecting and conserving the rural communities and environment of Illinois. 

Tehreem Qureshi is a summer college intern at FFAC. She is a sophomore studying environmental science and computer science.