Photograph by Steven Higgs

The fans that line the end of this CAFO barn in Randolph County blow dangerous byproducts from concentrated hog waste into the air, including ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. Corporate-owned CAFOs were lured to Indiana and allowed to freely pollute by the agricultural policies of Gov. Mitch Daniels and the Indiana General Assembly.

Editor's note: On March 20, Bloomington Alternative editor Steven Higgs gave speeches in Indianapolis to the Marion County Alliance of Neighborhood Associations and the Alliance for Democracy about the state of American democracy and his new book, Twenty Years of Crimes Against Democracy. What follows is a transcript of his prepared remarks.

***

INDIANAPOLIS -- Thank you for inviting me here today. It's a pleasure to share some of my thoughts with you about the state of our democracy, which, it seems to me, just about every one of you understands is just about dead.

Now, I teach journalism down at IU-Bloomington, and I tell my reporting students to avoid making "Big Statements," like "just about every one of you" and "just about dead," unless they can back them up.

Well, I was invited here today to present the best defense I can muster for my use of such superlatives in this context -- namely the I-69/NAFTA Highway, or the "$3 Billion Boondoggle."


Related Story: Citizens fund CAFO cleanups, more trouble ahead

But before I do that, I want to add one more piece of hyperbole to the mix.

I've spent the past 28 years writing continuously about politics -- 20 of them about I-69 politics -- and it is my opinion that in America today we have a democracy in name only.

  • Yes, most, not all, but most of our citizens can vote, though few of them actually do.
  • And yes, we can speak our minds on issues of importance.
  • But when it comes to decision-making, when it comes to lawmaking, when it comes to spending our money, what we have today is a plutocracy. We have a government of, by and for the rich and the powerful. Average citizens need not apply.

    ***

    Before I get to I-69 and my book, Twenty Years of Crimes Against Democracy, I want to address my first big statement -- that just about every one of you probably agree about the state of our democracy.
    "I've spent the past 28 years writing continuously about politics -- 20 of them about I-69 politics -- and it is my opinion that in America today we have a democracy in name only."
    Through my journalism, I come in contact with people and ideas from across broad spectrums of politics and media. And I have found the notion that our government works for the rich and powerful to be a universally accepted, nonpartisan proposition.

    I'm a Green and find little common ground with Tea Party activists. But I do understand their resentment toward the government, and I begrudgingly respect their passion. I think their read of the political landscape is grossly misinformed, and the target of their anger is totally misdirected. But what has their government done for them lately?

    Indeed, the better question is, what has their government allowed to be done to them, by the rich and powerful? And I've spent some time talking to people about that very subject.

    ***

    Two weeks ago I spent a day with some Randolph County farmers who have a Bush-Cheney sticker on the bumper of their pick-up truck. And they tell me that their government has allowed their health, their property and their environment to literally be soaked in cow and hog manure.

    When Mitch Daniels campaigned for governor in 2004, he vowed to double pork production in the state. And when he took office in 2005, he moved aggressively to make good on that pledge. But, the way Daniels and the state's rich and powerful ag community -- the Indiana Farm Bureau and Pork Producers Association in particular -- decided to pursue that goal was to sell rural Indiana, lock, stock and environment, to corporate Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, mostly from out of state.

    CAFOs, as they are called, are mega-farm, industrial operations where thousands of animals are housed inside barns and whose waste -- solid and liquid -- is washed outside and stored into open lagoons. The toxic, foul-smelling mixture is also spread on fields all over Indiana as fertilizer for field crops.

    No creature, human or otherwise, could survive inside these structures, due to the presence of the toxic chemicals ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. So the ends of the barns are lined with industrial-sized fans that blow these toxins outside.
    "When it comes to decision-making, when it comes to lawmaking, when it comes to spending our money, what we have today is a plutocracy. We have a government of, by and for the rich and the powerful. Average citizens need not apply."
    Now these lifelong farmers say what comes out of these barns and lagoons is not manure, at least not as they know it. It has a chemical smell to it, and it literally makes them sick.

    One retired couple I first interviewed two years ago this month -- Allen and Judy Hutchison -- live next to a 7.2-acre CAFO lagoon. They told me back then that their clothes often smelled like manure when they come out of the drier. I revisited the Hutchisons two weeks ago, and now they worry that the lagoon could explode.

    ***

    According to IDEM documents, Allen and Judy's neighbor, the Union Go Dairy CAFO, which is owned by an Ohio corporation, houses 1,290 cows that produce 15.5 million gallons of "manure, litter and process wastewater" annually.

    And yes, you heard me correctly. The Hutchisons worry that it could explode. You see, the lagoon is 14-foot deep, and methane gas has accumulated under its plastic liner and formed 17 bubbles that that have expanded upward and broken through its surface.

    Several are visible from Hutchison's property. Neighbors call it "Bubble Trouble Lagoon."

    These lifelong Hoosier residents have had their lives completely ruined by Mitch Daniels and the State Legislatures' decision to open the state to rich and powerful industrial ag operations.

    How do you think they would answer the question, what has your government done to you lately? Well, I asked them, and I can tell you that agree with me. I am writing a cover story for the April 14 edition of NUVO, where you will be able to read their words for themselves.

    ***

    I am also talking to some people on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River about doing some investigative reporting on decisions made by the ruling elite in their community.

    They are concerned with citizen involvement and transparency in public policy in a community that prides itself on being a "great place to raise a family." And when they surveyed folks about their attitudes toward government, they found that citizens there feel "powerless," that what they say or feel is of no consequence to the ruling elite in their community.

    My primary reporting project these days involves the connections between environmental pollution and the epidemics of autism and developmental disabilities in our state and nation, and in the Ohio Valley in particular. I've been investigating this issue since I heard John McCain say in the 2008 campaign that he would find the cause of autism if elected.
    "I'm a Green and find little common ground with Tea Party activists. But I do understand their resentment toward the government, and I begrudgingly respect their passion."
    I can't make a "big statement" here, but I can tell you that a significant number of Hoosiers and Americans share my perspective that the connection is direct and irrefutable. Like Mitch Daniels has done with corporate ag, our government for the past 30 years has served the interests of the rich and powerful polluters at the expense of average citizens.

    I could, but I won't burden you with scores of statistics, other than these:

  • Indiana ranked 49th in environmental quality in a 2007 Forbes magazine state-by-state ranking. Let me quote this business magazine: "It's full of toxic waste, the air and water is polluted, and it's not likely to change."
  • That same year, 1 in 6 Indiana public school children received special education.
  • In Evansville, one of the most polluted cities in the state, it was 1 in 5.
  • In 19 Ohio River counties on the Indiana side, it was 1 in 5.
  • And in historic New Harmony, the site of two 19th century utopian communities, it was more than 1 in 4. According to data from the Indiana Department of Education, 27 percent of the kids in New Harmony receive special education services.
  • Children growing up in the Ohio Valley have been soaked in toxic chemicals that the rich and powerful, in concert with their government, knew were dangerous and dumped on them anyway. For example, the U.S. Geological Survey found some of the highest levels of mercury in precipitation ever recorded near Madison, another historic Indiana city on the Ohio River.

    Mercury is a potent neurotoxin and a byproduct of burning coal. Just west of the Madison city line sits the coal-fired Clifty Creek Power Plant, which state regulators have allowed to pollute for decades after they knew better.

    I've only spoken to a couple parents with special needs kids in the region. But they say their government has not served their interests. And I will spend a good part of this summer in the valley talking to more. And I am confident that they, like their counterparts on the Kentucky side, will tell me that our democracy is not working for them, either.

    And, to get to the point of this talk, I have spent the past 20 years talking to citizens impacted by and involved in the I-69/NAFTA Highway. The heart of my book title -- Crimes Against Democracy -- are their words, not mine.

    ***

    The cliche that history is written by the winners isn't always true. For the past two decades, I've written the history of the I-69/NAFTA Highway as a newspaper reporter, as an alternative newsweekly columnist and as an independent Web publisher for the past eight years.

    The book's subtitle is "A Grassroots History of the I69/NAFTA Highway." My history is written from the perspective of those who thus far have been the losers, average citizens whose government who ignores them, runs roughshod over their democracy and transfers their wealth to the rich and the powerful.
    "The better question is, what has their government allowed to be done to them, by the rich and powerful?"
    And while most don't know it, that history began 44 years ago, in 1966, when the State of Indiana first considered a new highway coming north from Evansville. Its conclusion: "None of the alternative alignments examined would be financially feasible." Indiana taxpayers, the study found, couldn't afford to build it.

    Three more studies in the 1980s reached the same conclusion.

    One in 1980 said improving existing roads in the area should be the priority. Another in 1982 again said such a highway simply wasn't "feasible." Another in 1985 did propose a route from Evansville to Patoka Lake, largely to accommodate traffic to the proposed Tillery Hill Recreation Area there.

    Well, thanks to a healthy democracy, citizens opposed to the Tillery Hill development proved it would be an environmental mistake, and it was never built. Today, bald eagles nest on Tillery Hill.

    But Evansville proponents of a direct-link highway to Indianapolis persisted and raised the issue again in the 1988 gubernatorial race between Evan Bayh and John Mutz.

    That same year Republican Governor and Evansville native Robert Orr ordered yet another analysis, this one called the Southwest Indiana Highway Feasibility Study. He hired nationally respected, independent engineers out of Iowa, Massachusetts and Indianapolis. And over the next year these unbiased professionals traveled the region, talking to local governments, businesses, tourism groups and industries.

    They conducted 14 public hearings and collected questionnaires from 600 "major businesses." And their report, which came to be known as the Donohue Study after its lead consultant, mirrored the four previous analyses. While there were multiple issues, the bottom line was an unaffordable bottom line. The report concluded:

    "If undertaken, this project would be the most costly highway built in the State of Indiana since the development of the interstate highway system."

    ***

    The Donohue Report was released to the public on July 20, 1989. And despite being the fourth professional study in a decade to reach the same conclusion, the Bloomington Herald-Telephone reported that same day that the rich and powerful would not accept the results.

    At the behest of Evansville business interests, the new Bayh administration contracted with a Maryland firm to revisit the Donohue study, and five months later added a 16-page addendum that questioned its assumptions and recommended the Evansville-to-Indianapolis route be considered feasible.

    As prelude to the addendum, the Donohue consultants wrote, all in capital letters:
    "Two weeks ago I spent a day with some Randolph County farmers who ... tell me that their government has allowed their health, their property and their environment to literally be soaked in cow and hog manure."
    "THE FOLLOWING ADDENDUM IS BEING INCLUDED AS AN ATTACHMENT TO THIS REPORT AT THE REQUEST OF THE INDIANA DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION. THIS ADDENDUM DOES NOT REPRESENT THE WORK PRODUCT OF DONOHUE, CAMBRIDGE SYSTEMATICS OR CONGDON ENGINEERING, AND THESE FIRMS DO NOT ENDORSE IT."

    That fraudulent piece of work was produced to satisfy the needs of the rich and powerful, not the Indiana taxpayer. And it has served as the foundation for the $3 Billion Boondoggle ever since.

    ***

    Anyone familiar with my work over the past quarter century knows that I have spent much of my time watching and writing about citizen groups and their struggles with entrenched power. My first book Eternal Vigilance, published by IU Press in 1995, chronicled the experiences of 10 Hoosier activists and nine epic environmental struggles from the second half of the 20th century.

    That was back when democracy worked reasonably well, and citizens had real voice in their government and the decision-making process. They made their arguments, and they won each of those struggles. Thanks to their efforts:

  • We saved some of the Indiana dunes;
  • We have no PCB incinerator in Bloomington or nuclear power plants anywhere in the state;
  • We have a strong, organized voice in Indianapolis in the Hoosier Environmental Council; and
  • The quintessential Hoosier river -- the Wabash -- is still the longest natural waterway in the nation.
  • And as I have said and written many times before, the citizens movement that arose in response to the shameless corruption of the I-69/NAFTA Highway is one of the most impressive I've ever seen.

    Citizens for Appropriate Rural Roads formed in October 1990, joined and followed by the Hoosier Environmental Council, CountUS!, the Environmental Law & Policy Center and McANA, to name but a few.

    I've not always agreed with their tactics or approach. But in terms of reach, passion, intelligence and vigilance, the anti-new-terrain-highway coalition has been top-shelf. They have won every argument they have engaged in with the state and the highway lobby. And they have reduced every rationalization for building a new-terrain route to laughable rubble. Every single one.

    Hell, when INDOT, the Indiana Department of Transportation, formally asked the public for its opinion on the new-terrain route in 2003, more than 21,000 citizens responded. And 94 four percent of them were against it. More than nine out of 10 said no new terrain.

    The state, it must be noted, didn't even bother to tally the public response. Citizens had to drive to the Evansville office of consultant Bernardin-Lochmueller & Associates and count the comments themselves.

    ***

    The BLA story is one of the most revealing of all the I-69 tales.

    Gov. Evan Bayh, after rejecting the Donohue study recommendations, hired BLA and two other firms in April 1990 to begin work on the project. In July 1992, the state released the first Draft Environmental Impact Statement of the Bloomington-to-Evansville route and said it would cost $800 million. Six months later, the Federal Highway Administration nixed the state's plans to give BLA more contracts without seeking competitive bids.

    "Children growing up in the Ohio Valley have been soaked in toxic chemicals that the rich and powerful, in concert with their government, knew were dangerous and dumped on them anyway."And despite producing two EIS's that were rejected by different federal agencies for being inadequate, BLA continued to receive state work, as it does today. But not without a cost to our democracy.

    In 2002, the Environmental Law & Policy Center conducted an in-depth study of BLA campaign contributions. And it found that between 1999 and 2002, the company and its principals gave more than $175,000 to Indiana politicians and parties. Nearly three-quarters of that money went to Gov. Frank O'Bannon, Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan, the Democratic Party and key Democrats, like Bloomington Mayor John Fernandez.

    Through the Bloomington Alternative I then submitted a Public Records request to the state and received copies of all INDOT contracts with BLA between March 1989 and February 2002. The total was $28 million over 13 years, almost half of it for I-69 work.

    But more than half the total -- $15.9 million -- was awarded between 1999 and 2002, when BLA's campaign contributions took their little upturn. Taxpayer money literally went from the state to BLA to the campaigns of the governor, the lieutenant governor and others responsible for BLA's success.

    And to say BLA succeeded during this period would be understatement in the extreme. The company flourished. According to its Web site, BLA, which was founded in 1980:

  • Expanded outside of Evansville for the first time in 1994, opening offices in West Lafayette and Frankfort, Ky.;
  • Built a new corporate office in 1996; and
  • Remodeled and added 8,000 square feet to those new offices in 1999 and added offices in Indianapolis, Louisville and Charleston, Ill.
  • Several Web sites I found say BLA executive Dean Boerste alone contributed almost $30,000 to candidates in 2008.

    ***

    It wasn't just citizens who identified the I-69/NAFTA Highway as a boondoggle. In 1998, NBC Nightly News called it a "Fleecing of America," and ABC's World News Night ran an "It's Your Money" segment on it.

    "I have spent the past 20 years talking to citizens impacted by and involved in the I-69/NAFTA Highway. The heart of my book title -- Crimes Against Democracy -- are their words, not mine."That same year, to make sure the citizens voices were not heeded, INDOT committed $150,000 to a Washington, D.C., law firm to ensure it's highway plan could survive a legal challenge.

    In July 2002, INDOT released the last DEIS it would prepare, and it didn't even include among its routes the cheaper, less-destructive U.S. 41/I-70 alternative, which had been proposed by citizen groups a decade earlier. To no one's surprise, the preferred route was the original new-terrain route proposed in the fraudulent Donohue addendum in 1989.

    The DEIS said the route would consume:

  • As many as 484 homes,
  • As many as 75 businesses,
  • Several churches,
  • More than 3,000 acres of farmland, and
  • More than 1,000 acres of forest.
  • And the DC lawyers did their job protecting the plan from citizen challenge.

    In December 2007, a U.S. District Court judge ruled against CARR, HEC and ELPC's legal challenges to the highway process under federal laws.

    The year before, the Indiana Supreme Court had agreed with a St. Joseph County judge who ruled citizens challenging the constitutionality of Gov. Mitch Daniels' Major Moves scheme would have to post a $1.9 billion bond to proceed.

    That's $1.9 billion, just to have their day in court.

    ***

    I could go on for hours, but I will bring this to a close with two more points.

    The first goes back to the Donohue Study and those that came before it, that Indiana taxpayers cannot afford the I-69/NAFTA Highway.

    I have personally argued that I-69 would not be built because they would never come up with the money to build the "most expensive highway" ever conceived in the state. And with the exception of Daniel's Major Moves program, in which he privatized the Indiana Toll Road and dedicated $700 million of the take to I-69, that argument has held firm.

    "Taxpayer money literally went from the state to BLA to the campaigns of the governor, the lieutenant governor and others responsible for BLA's success."Daniels has no idea how the state is going to raise the other $2.3 billion, but he plans on spending another $800 million on the I-69/NAFTA Highway over the next four years, while he is firing school teachers across the state.

    As CARR asked in its latest newsletter: "Where are Our Priorities?"

    The truth behind the history of the I-69/NAFTA Highway is that no one but the rich and powerful have ever wanted the $3 Billion Boondoggle.

    A variety of polls throughout the years have shown that people in Evansville really don't care that much whether a highway goes to Indianapolis via Bloomington or Terre Haute.

    And Bloomington, in every way possible, has loudly said we don't want this highway. In August 2002, the Evansville Courier & Press reported that 18 of the first 20 speakers at an INDOT public hearing in Bloomington were against it.

    No politician dare run on a pro-I-69 platform in my community. The only one who ever publicly supported it -- Mayor John Fernandez -- lost Monroe County when he ran for Secretary of State.

    Meanwhile, the public and elected officials in Terre Haute clamored for the 41/70 Common Sense Alternative proposed by the citizen groups back in 1992.

    But I was told on good authority that, when Frank O'Bannon called Terre Haute Mayor Judy Anderson in 2003 to say he had selected the new-terrain route, he told her: "Terre Haute has its interstate. Bloomington is going to get this one."

    What kind of a democracy is that?

    Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.