Poisoned Wells

Dairy cows produce high levels of waste which can contaminate drinking water—but the runoff is poorly regulated.
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Residents in Morrison, Wisconsin, turned seriously ill when their drinking water was contaminated from farm runoff, shedding light on the problems of factory farms—and particularly the waste they produce. The New York Times reported last week that an early thaw created a major bacteria problem for residents in Morrison, home to about 41,000 dairy cows, when bacteria and chemicals from manure and other wastes used to fertilize fields polluted more than 100 wells. Residents, said the story, "suffered from chronic diarrhea, stomach illnesses and severe ear infections" from the parasites and bacteria in their water.

Despite the seriousness of the problem, the Times reported that this sort of agricultural runoff is "essentially unregulated" under the Clean Water Act, which only covers chemicals or toxins that travel via pipes or ditches. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has worked to regulate these contaminants for huge farms—those with at least 700 cows—but, says the article, "thousands of large animal feedlots that should be regulated by those rules are effectively ignored because farmers never file paperwork, EPA officials say."

And, the article continues, farms are allowed to certify themselves after regulations passed under the Bush presidency, assuring many an easy way to avoid scrutiny. While the EPA is promising better monitoring in the future, the fact remains that agricultural runoff is the nation's biggest water contamination problem. Some 19.5 million Americans are sickened each year from waterborne parasites and bacteria, according to the journal Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, and residents across the country are suffering from polluted drinking water.

SOURCE: New York Times Toxic Waters series