"Something in the Water"
Current environmental laws in the United States that were created to help
small farmers are now being abused by corporations that have found ways
through the cracks of the same laws in the name of agriculture. The Coon
Family in Cayuga County New York can tell you how well the current
agricultural laws are working for residents there. They have witnessed
first hand what life near a 'farmer' is like.
Dennis Eldred started his dairy business in 1978. Fred Coon said that by
1979, seemingly overnight, the company suddenly bloomed into a major dairy
operation, with the support of New York's major environmental/health
departments, as well as colleges and universities such as Cornell University.
He rightfully has their backing. He is operating as an agricultural
operation, and therefore falls under the laws that were made to regulate
farms that operate on a much smaller scale.
Fred Coon has lived in his home all his life. The family holds deeds to
their property from 1797. He married Pearl, raised their children and now is
afraid to have his grandchildren come over, and rightfully so, for health
reasons. The well on their property is contaminated with e-coli.
The water that flows through the creek on the Coon property originates from
the Willet Dairy property. Their property touches their 'farmer' neighbor,
Willet Dairy Corporation, on 2 sides. The corporation, which operates a
'farm' with over 6,500 dairy cows, is one of many agri-businesses that fall
under the current laws that are meant to help the smaller farmers, that
instead give more power to these growing agri-businesses.
The result is that the care and concern for the health of the general public
is no longer as important as the amount of revenue the state brings in
through corporations like Willet Dairy.
The Coon family, and others in their community have been fighting a losing
battle for the last 2 years.
The problem is a corporation with the amount of dairy cows Willet has
produces what should be called industrial waste. Instead, Willet Dairy falls
through the cracks of the laws intended to help small farmers stay in
business. Imagine that each of those 6,500 cows produce approximately 14 lbs
of waste per day. That works out to 91,000 lbs of waste per day. That is
not the amount of waste that an average farmer produces on a dairy farm, and
not an amount of waste that can be managed properly, as the residents of
Cayuga County can tell you.
The manure is contaminating the waters in the county. From rivers and
streams, to private wells through out the community. E-coli has been found
when residents go through New York State Department of Health certified water
testing companies to have their wells tested. Incredibly, when the health
department makes its way out there, they find no e-coli. The water is safe
to drink, although no state agency has accepted any offer to enjoy a glass of
water straight from the faucet in the Coon home. Their simplified answer to
the Coon family, and other families in the community is to buy bottled water.
That is good and fine when you have a job with a state or federal agency
that pays you well enough to buy bottled water if you choose, but not if you
are retired and living off social security to make ends meet. They already
have enough of an expense getting their wells tested from someone they feel
they can trust. Sadly, it seems none of those people work for the government
in New York.
Under current EPA laws, we have what is called The Safe Drinking Water Act.
The act states:
"The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), which celebrated its 25th anniversary in
1999, is the main federal law that ensures the quality of Americans' drinking
water. Under SDWA, EPA sets standards for drinking water quality and oversees
the states, localities, and water suppliers who implement those standards. "
That works for most Americans, but not if you are living in America,
drinking, bathing, cooking and cleaning with water from a well. I asked an
official at the EPA how there could not be any laws that regulated water from
private wells. There once was a belief that ground water just took care of
itself. The growth of agri-business, along with other environmental impacts,
have made environmental agencies re-think their original theory, but it seems
not quite enough yet to pass any type of legislation to protect drinking
water from private wells. He also said that the Clean Water Act has been held
up in Congress for years, they have not even looked at it.
The Clean Water Act, which governs surface water contamination, it is
supposed to assure us that agricultural run-off is not contaminating surface
water. Fred and Pearl Coon have a creek that runs into a pond on their
property. The pond is graduated at levels from 2' - 12'. You cannot see
further than approximately 2' in the pond because it is filled with liquid
manure. The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has been out on a
regular basis to test water from the creek on their property, they have found
e-coli in the water, and have seen the manure in the pond. Yet, for some
reason, no action has been taken to find the source of the contamination in
their pond. I did speak with Gene Kelly, the Assistant Attorney General who
is investigating this case. He has been investigating the events in Cayuga
County since June of 2000. In a telephone conversation with Gene Kelly in
November of 2000, the following conversation occurred:
"You can look at the pond on the Coon property and see and smell that there
is liquid manure sitting in there, why is it that nothing is being done about
that? This is a direct violation of the Clean Water Act, as it is supposed
to protect our rivers and streams from agricultural run-off. If the Coon
family creek and pond has liquid manure in it, and if the source of their
water comes directly from Willet Dairy, why is nothing being done about this?"
He agreed and added, "In order to be able to prove something in court though,
you need to be able to do more than just say it looks like manure. You have
to be able to show that it is in fact manure. You don't have to necessarily
prove where it came from, because that can be an impossible task. But given
the fact that there is a very large dairy farm, with over 7,000 cows, just
upstream from them, it seems pretty likely that if there is manure in their
stream, that is where it came from."
"You are right." He went on to say, "There are federal statutes that could
be invoked. There also are state statutes, and quite frankly, we would
probably just proceed under the state statutes."
"So then you will be testing the sediment in their pond then?"
He answered; "Yes there will be a lot of different tests that will be done.
It won't just be well water."
To date no one has been out to take a sediment sample from the Coon pond.
The Coon family, neighbors in the community, and myself as well, have been in
contact with The New York State Health Department, The Department of
Environmental Conservation, The New York State EPA office, The Army Corps of
Engineers, The New York State Attorney General's office, as well as county
offices to discuss problems associated with Willet Dairy Corporation. What
we have all found through our countless calls, e-mails and letters is that
these organizations seem to take turns passing responsibility back and forth,
while residents of Cayuga County fight for what seems to be a simple right in
America. Water! Not just any kind of water, CLEAN water. Drinkable water.
Water free of e-coli and other unnamed bacteria.
They also ask those agencies to help them clean their water as it flows
through their creeks, streams, and eventually into Cayuga Lake. Residents
who live along the lakeshore have found liquid manure in their lake as well.
The residents also would like the DEC and Army Corps to stop permitting
Willet Dairy to drain wetlands on his property. The wetlands serve as a
buffer to help 'naturally' clean the land. While this cannot perform a
miracle on the issues that are present in Cayuga County, every little bit
does help. As Americans we have the false belief that our government is
protecting our wetlands. They are protected, as long as an agricultural
business does not need that land for 'improvements' to their property that
benefit the farmer.
Sandra Doran from the Army Corp of Engineers stated that under the clean
water act, a lot of farming activities are exempt. She advised me to look up
the Code of Federal Register (CFR), part 323.4 (a)iii. CFR 323.4 (a)iii
"Cultivating means physical methods of soil treatment employed within
established farming, ranching and silviculture lands on farm, ranch, or
forest crops to aid and improve their growth, quality or yield."
These 'improvements' can mean anything from a new driveway to new mobile
homes for the workers on their land. As far as Sandra and the Army Corp of
Engineers are concerned, "He is in compliance with all our regulations." She
was unable to comment on if he was in violation of the Clean Water Act as
that falls under the jurisdiction of state of New York under the Department
of Environmental Conservation.
She understands and sympathizes with the land-owners in that community, but
she says, "They have to understand which violations are with which agency."
Is it the job of those who are working for the people of the United States to
make sure that laws are being followed, or is it this a job that we, as
American tax-paying citizens have to pick apart each and every violation and
call up each individual agency that holds jurisdiction to tell them what they
should be doing?
There is one small spot of hope for this community. It is obvious that
Willet Dairy is in violation of the Clean Water Act. What needs to be done
is for the sediment in the Coon pond to be tested to see what exactly it is.
Since no one on a state level is willing to do that, and if these people can
prove incompetence within the state agencies, the EPA can be brought in under
section 1431 and take emergency power over the situation. Section 1431
"Sec 1431 (a) Notwithstanding any other provision of this title, the
Administrator, upon receipt of information that a contaminant which is
present in or is likely to enter a public water system or an underground
source of drinking water may present an imminent and substantial endangerment
to the health of persons, and that appropriate State and local authorities
have not acted to protect the health of such persons, may take such sections
as he may deem necessary in order to protect the health of such persons. To
the extent he determines it to be practicable in light of such imminent
endangerment, he shall consult with State and local authorities in order to
confirm the correctness of the information on which action proposed to be
taken under this subsection is based and to ascertain the action which such
authorities are or will be taking. The action which the Administrator may
take may include (but shall not be limited to) (1) issuing such orders as may
be necessary to protect the health of persons who are or may be users of
such system (including travelers), including orders requiring the provision
of alternative water supplies by persons who caused or contributed to the
endangerment, and (2) commencing a civil action for appropriate relief,
including a restraining order or permanent or temporary injunction."
Now it is the job of the people in the community to prove that the state
agencies have not in fact done their job, and hope that the EPA can be
granted power under this act.
This problem is not only in the state of New York; it is a problem that needs
to be addressed on a national basis. People are facing similar problems in
other areas of New York, throughout the Midwest, and currently in North
Carolina, the EPA did invoke Section 1431 in a similar situation with the hog
farming industry there. We need to redefine, on a national level, what we
consider to be a 'farmer' as well as what a 'farm' is and what is actually
industry vs. agriculture.
Dennis Eldred was contacted and given the opportunity to discuss the issues
involving his dairy company. His response was, "I don't know what the issues
are." He said, "I am not really going to get into this, and you really don't
know what you are talking about. This thing is has reached a point of
absurdity; this is not something that I am going to entertain."
Mr. Eldred, I will again invite you to entertain me with your comments if you
choose to do so now.