On the Road With the Water Sentinels: Part 5
We arrive in Owensboro, Kentucky, on the Ohio River about 100 miles downstream of Louisville, just after sundown. We make straight for the fabled Moonlite BBQ, where we gorge on their colossal buffet, including a heaping helping of Kentucky burgoo, a stew traditionally made with squirrel or opossum, nowadays made with mutton. I rue my gluttony later that night, but when in Rome…
Early the next morning we're back in the Moonlite parking lot, where we hook up with longtime Water Sentinels Aloma & Lee Dew. They're taking us on a Tour de Stench through four western Kentucky counties to observe the heavy concentration of factory farms, or CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), that have moved into the region in force.
Several Sierra Club volunteers have come down from Louisville and other points east for the tour, including longtime Cumberland Chapter leader and clean water activist Hank Graddy, an attorney who has represented the Sierra Club in several landmark lawsuits to get factory farms to clean up their act.
We pile into the van and Lee pilots us out of town into the countryside as Aloma briefs us on the invasion of factory farming into western Kentucky and the environmental havoc it has wrought.
"CAFOs came swooping into Kentucky in the 1990s because it was a rural state with few environmental regulations, many unskilled workers, a high unemployment rate, and abundant grain and water," Aloma says. "They came with the promise of jobs and too-good-to-be-true profits. No one talked about the cost to the air, water, and soil, the nightmarish conditions in the plants, or the effect these operations would have on neighbors—not to mention the animals."
We slow down as we approach a series of long, low-slung silver sheds with a No Admittance sign on prominent display. "This big hog operation is within half a mile of the Green River," Lee tells us. "This berm we see along here is the sewage lagoon for this operation. All this land is fertilized with liquefied hog waste, which is collected in these lagoons and then sprayed on the fields, which drain via ditches and streams into the Green River. It's quite an adventure when you're driving down the road and they're spraying—all of a sudden you've got this brown film all over the windshield."
Below, a hog CAFO with sewage lagoons.
As we drive through the rolling countryside, it's hard not to notice that every couple minutes we pass yet another chicken or hog operation, usually accompanied by a foul odor. Down a pretty, undulating back road we turn into the driveway of Bernadine Edwards. Across the road is a cluster of 16 enormous chicken "houses," each of which holds between 25,000 and 30,000 birds.
"I live amongst a couple hundred of these chicken houses within about a 3-mile radius the way a crow flies," Edwards says. She and her late husband Billy built their modest house on the family farm as their dream retirement home. Then Big Chicken moved in across the street.
"I used to get together with my kids and my grandchildren every Sunday and we'd cook out and have us a big old time right out here in the yard," Edwards says. "But after this operation went in across the way the stench got so bad I couldn't sit in my yard or even have my grandkids come to visit. The last time we had a cookout, you couldn't eat the food because the flies smelled it before we did—and I mean the food was covered in flies."
That was the last time Edwards had a cookout in her yard—over a decade ago.
"Our regulatory agencies have essentially taken the position that people who live in rural Kentucky must live with whatever odor and pollution problem comes near them—that they're not entitled to breathe clean air and drink clean water," says Graddy, below, with the offending CAFO in the background. "Industrial agriculture gets a free ride, and everybody else has to get out of the way. If you don't like the hog barn or the chicken factory that moves in next to you, you're expected by our regulatory agencies to move, or live with it. From my perspective that's not the American way."
"You can't keep your house clean," Edwards says. "It's coated all the time in fecal dust. They told me to keep my windows and doors closed, but air from the outside gets in no matter what you do. Whenever they spread manure on the fields, my house is covered with flies. I'd have my kids and grandkids over and they'd get sick and have to go to the doctor because of respiratory problems. It finally got to a point where I said, I don't have to live like this—ain't no way a human being needs to live like this. So I got on the ball and called Aloma and started fighting."
Edwards started going to meetings of the McLean County Citizens Against Factory Farms, and gradually became a leader in the fight against chicken CAFOs. In return she has been harassed, threatened, and had guns fired at her house. "One day I was at my kitchen window when suddenly the glass shattered and something zoomed by my head," she recalls. "It was a 30-06 bullet. I tried to get the sheriff to find out who it was, but they couldn't even tell whose gun the bullet belonged to. You're just on your own."
During her husband's funeral in the small cemetery up the road from the house where generarions of the family are buried, several trucks hauling loads of manure and dead chickens rumbled slowly by in the middle of the service.
"You talk about smell," Edwards says. "It was horrible. And I had never, ever seen the truck come from that-a-way before. Why did they do it? I can't prove it, but I think it was to send a message. I'd find nails and dead chickens scattered out here in the driveway, and I've found dead mice and rats on top of my mailbox. For years when I worked in the water office in town, I'd come in and there'd be chicken blood smeared all over the commodes."
But Edwards resolve was only emboldened, and in 2003 she joined a Sierra Club lawsuit against Tyson Foods that resulted in tougher pollutions controls on CAFOs. "I've sure found the Sierra Club to be an ally," Edwards says, "and I've tried to help them in return by going to meetings with them at other places to tell people what I've been through. The Sierra Club has given me ideas and the confidence to do things I didn't know how to do before."
"When I started this work a dozen years ago," Aloma says, "most people in western Kentucky, if they'd heard of the Sierra Club, thought we were all tree-hugging vegetarian communists. Now people call us when they have a problem, the farmers see us as their friend, and people who never dreamed they'd work with the Sierra Club now see us as their ally, not their enemy.
"We never come into a community unless we're asked. Then we come in and tell people we're here to offer them any resources that we can. We're not talking about money—mainly we help them organize, maybe bring in a lawyer if need be. Mostly we teach them how to be empowered and use what they have, because the people in the community have to solve the problem."
Often when the Dews first come into a new area, people will ask if they need to join the Sierra Club to get their help. "I have always said no," Aloma says. "I say we'd love to have you as a member, but we will help you no matter what. Ultimately, most of them have joined the Club, and many of have become Water Sentinels. We've enlisted a lot of people to test water around these facilities.
"We had one activist who said, 'I used to be just a nice quiet little grandmother, but I will never be quiet again.' This woman has now appeared before national audiences, she's gone to Washington, D.C., to testify before the EPA, she's been interviewed by reporters from all over the country, and she sees that being quiet is being part of the problem. The Water Sentinels have empowered many of these people to speak up and have a hand in making their lives better. And that's always better than having somebody else come in and do it for you."