Photograph by Rodney Walker

Since the Indiana General Assembly adjourned without passing legislation to regulate Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in the state, I propose a Hoosier variant to the Chinese calendar, which declares 2007 the Year of the Pig.

Let's call 2007 the Year of the CAFO.

Celebrations could take many forms. Jubilant agribusinessmen, unhampered by annoying rules and inspections, will spray plumes of untreated manure on saturated soils and expedite the flow of hormone- and antibiotic-laden waste into drainage tiles, where it can augment the abundant pollution in our state's waterways.

Convoys of unregulated manure haulers will crisscross pitted rural roadways, honking and giving each other the thumbs-up as leaky honey wagons slosh their noxious cargo and spatter the windshields of passersby while clouds of ammonia drift through backyards, playgrounds and hospitals.

Highly skilled agronomists will give an extra dose of melamine-laced feed from China as a treat to their carefully contained chickens and pigs that, imprisoned in hot, cramped darkness, will no doubt be grateful for the speedy relief a poison affords.

Agritourists will have their breath taken away -- literally -- as they visit one of the many multi-million-gallon manure pits that dot rural Indiana. (BYO hazmat suit.)

There was no lack of initiatives to regulate CAFOs during the legislative session. One bill seeking a moratorium never got a hearing. Another bill sought to usurp local control by dictating that no county could pass a CAFO ordinance above or beyond current law. Fortunately, that one withered away for lack of support.

On the other hand, House Bill 1197 -- co-sponsored by Rep. Phil Pflum (D-Milton), Rep. Thomas Saunders (R-Lewisville) and Rep. Dennis Tyler (D-Muncie) -- received bipartisan support. After many revisions, the bill established a one-mile setback of CAFOs from public schools, healthcare facilities and municipalities. Other components included a "good character" clause, fees for annual inspections and penalties for violations, and a mandate to the State Chemist's office to create a training program for manure haulers and applicators. On Feb. 21, the bill passed the House 62-36.

It foundered when sent to the Senate for consideration by the Committee on Energy and Environmental Affairs, chaired by Sen. Beverly Gard (R-Greenfield). "Senator Gard allowed me to present HB 1197 to the committee but never took a vote on the bill," Rep. Pflum said in a recent phone interview.

Sen. Gard pointed to the insistence on setbacks as the issue. "Setbacks need to be set at the local level," she said in a phone interview. Gard introduced her own legislation, Senate Bill 431, which mirrored many aspects of HB 1197 -- except for setbacks.

Gard's bill passed the Senate and was sent to Pflum's Agriculture and Rural Development committee, which not only heard the bill but also amended it to include setbacks. Why the insistence on setbacks?

"Originally, with HB 1197, we started out with a two-mile setback," Pflum said. "After meeting with Andy Miller [director of the Indiana Department of Agriculture] and Indiana Farm Bureau and being shown a map of how restrictive that would be, we moved the setback to one mile, which was based on the Iowa State University report showing property values being greatly reduced if located within one mile of a CAFO."

But Gard had no interest in setbacks. That, along with concerns about increased fees expressed by conference committee member Rep. Bill Friend (R-Macy), created a stalemate when the House and Senate conference committee met to work on the bill. Without a compromise in the waning days of the session, it died.

Many citizens monitored the legislature hoping for passage of meaningful CAFO rules. Once it became clear that wasn't going to happen, they expressed their outrage and dismay.

"I'm glad SB 431 didn't pass. It was a terrible thing," said Rae Schnapp, who serves as water policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council and the Wabash Riverkeeper. "It had potential to be a good thing but in the end it was so watered down it seemed a lot like window-dressing."

Schnapp said her problem with the bill was its focus on production while ignoring what she considers the main problem: manure spreading. "The proposed increased inspection didn't really deal with it," she said. "And the proposed certification of manure handlers by the State Chemist has the potential to be a good thing but in SB 431 it was very vague."

Barbara Sha Cox, a third generation farmer on land her family owns in Randolph County, has been active in the statewide grassroots push to regulate CAFOs. "I think there were good bills on the table and they should have been brought to a vote," she said.

Cox mentioned SB 447 [which called for a moratorium], HB 1197 and HB 1308, which would have mandated that local health and zoning boards sign off before IDEM could issue a permit. "Senator Gard could have heard the bills and sent them to the Senate for a vote but she didn't," Cox said.

She's a strong supporter of setbacks. "We have setbacks for sex offenders - they can't come within certain range of schools - so it wasn't blazing any new trails," Cox said.

Jolinda Buchanan, farm program coordinator for the Citizens Action Coalition, said, "Overall it's unfortunate that there were no steps forward taken at all." A farmer on a Hoosier Homestead farm near Madison that has been in her family 115 years, she's disappointed that legislators didn't listen to their constituents. "On my desk is a stack of copies of letters that legislators received from farmers and other rural residents urging them to listen to the people of the counties," Buchanan said. "Everyone there [in the General Assembly] knows that agriculture is changing in Indiana. We have a goal of doubling hog production and the scale of industries coming into the state are of concern for farmers and the environment."

She notes that the talk in the House and Senate chambers centered on agribusiness, not agriculture. "I think it's important for Indiana to keep culture in agriculture - that includes good character and that includes caring about the community."

Buchanan, who objected to the inclusion of setbacks, said passing SB 431 would have been better than nothing at all. "The strongest message in those letters is that local people know what's best at the local level. Setbacks are important but I don't think somebody in Indianapolis should be deciding for the rest of the state."

On May 1, Brad Baughn, Sen. Gard's legislative assistant, broadcast an e-mail with the subject line: CAFO Legislation Killed by House of Representatives. Baughn wrote: "The careful regulation of confined feeding operations is a must, and it is a shame that because of a few House Representatives SB 431 and its many benefits are now lost."

Contacted at her office, Sen. Gard said that SB 431 had strong support without the setback provision and would have passed the Senate. She reiterated her opposition to generalized setbacks. "I don't think one size fits all," she said. "Setbacks need to be set at the local level. Representative Pflum disagreed."

Rep. Pflum said, "I'm greatly disappointed. When two-thirds of the House thought there should be setbacks despite heavy lobbying against it, why wasn't it deserving of a vote by the Indiana Senate?"

CAC's Buchanan says there's plenty of blame to go around. "I think it's the fault of every person in the legislature," she said. "As the debate went on about various bills, you never heard talk about using a precautionary principle - look before you leap," she said. "The thing I learned from farming is, if you go in the dark, you'd better have a flashlight. If you're going to set up CAFO operations on a scale like we're seeing, you'd better know what you're getting into because a mistake can be very bad."

Buchanan's warning is timely: a joint announcement by the Food and Drug Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture on April 30 revealed that an estimated 38 Indiana poultry farms had used contaminated chicken feed from China. The contamination was discovered during the investigation into tainted pet foods that led to a massive recall in March. Despite government assurances that there was low risk to humans, the melamine contamination raised questions about food security because the feed had been used in February and many of the chickens had already entered the food supply.

On May 4 came the news that IDEM had revoked the permit for DeGroot Dairy in Huntington County because the dairy had discharged manure into a tributary of the Salamonie Reservoir. DeGroot, which has 1,300 head of cattle, has been cited by IDEM for 13 permit violations between September 2005 and April 11, 2007.

IDEM is reportedly looking at possible permit violations at Union-Go Dairy in Randolph County. In late April, the facility discharged manure into Sparrow Creek. IDEM is also looking at problems with the operation's 20-million-gallon manure pit. Meanwhile, despite a year-old lawsuit challenging the issuance of the original permit, the owners have filed an application with IDEM to expand the operation from 1,650 to 2,804 cows.

The cumulative effect of these recent news reports undermines contentions that CAFOs are merely agricultural operations. In truth, they are operations of industrial scale and magnitude in the amount of water they use, the amount of untreated excrement discharged and the amount of toxic gases generated. The wear and tear on rural infrastructure is as substantial as that inflicted on neighboring residences, businesses, schools, parks and waterways.

Because of the scale of damage CAFOs can render, it makes no difference if huge corporations or individual families operate them. Calling them family farms is as disingenuous as calling a 10-million-gallon manure pit a lagoon.

As Rep. Pflum puts it, "I respectfully suggest we can move pork production forward in Indiana but it's all about location, location, location." When you place such facilities in towns and near schools, he adds, "You are heading for disaster. North Carolina put a moratorium on CAFOs for a reason. We need to learn from their mistake."

Thomas P. Healy is a journalist in Indianapolis. He can be reached at thomasphealy@sbcglobal.net