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Debate over hog confinements back in the spotlight

Senate planel hears pros and cons of massive facilities

Reacting to opposition from rural communities and environmentalists, state officials at a Senate hearing Tuesday defended Illinois laws and policies regulating massive hog confinements.

As pork producers build and expand the facilities, neighboring farmers have complained their rights are being trampled while waste spills poison local streams and sickening gases ruin families’ lives and property values.

“I represent farmers in my district who say there’s a problem,” state Sen. David Koehler, D-Peoria, said at Tuesday’s nearly 3-hour hearing.

Koehler is part of a subcommittee of three Downstate legislators reviewing livestock facility laws. In March, he introduced a set of new bills that would tighten Illinois’ environmental protections, allow local citizens more input in the permitting process and give nearby residents standing to challenge the massive facilities in court.

The hearing and Koehler’s bills came in response to the Chicago Tribune’s 2016 investigation, “The Price of Pork,” which sparked calls for reform from lawmakers including U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin as well as local efforts to halt or slow the construction of new facilities. The series found that hog waste spills accounted for nearly half of the 1 million fish killed in Illinois water pollution incidents from 2005 to 2014 and impaired 67 miles of rivers and waterways during that time.

Holding thousands of pigs and sometimes producing millions of gallons of manure annually, the operations now account for well over 90 percent of Illinois’ $1.5 billion in annual hog sales.

Neighboring farmers have told the Tribune that their lives and property values were ruined by gases from the giant confinements. Hog waste releases hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, which can cause respiratory illness when mixed with airborne animal dander and fecal dust, public health studies have found.

But at Tuesday’s hearing, state Department of Agriculture Deputy Director Warren Goetsch praised Illinois’ 1996 Livestock Management Facilities Act, which has been criticized for failing to keep pace with the dramatic growth of swine confinements.

“I believe that the safeguards of the LMFA have been very effective,” Goetsch testified.

It was only under persistent questioning by Koehler that state Environmental Protection Agency official David Ginder acknowledged his agency does not know how many large hog confinements exist in the state, or where many of them are located – a loophole that critics say makes it nearly impossible to monitor and regulate the factorylike operations.

At the hearing, critics cited laws and policies in surrounding agricultural states – including Iowa, Indiana and Wisconsin – that offer more transparency and local control but still support a vibrant livestock industry.

Defending the industry Tuesday were representatives of four family-owned livestock operations who described their tireless efforts to protect the environment and neighboring farm families – as well as the animals they raise.

“Our barns are designed to utilize the latest technology. ... We continue to improve our sustainability,” said Morgan County pork producer Genny Six.

Illinois pork producers carry significant political weight in Springfield and in 2014 shot down an effort to overhaul the livestock act. They, along with other agriculture groups, argue that large livestock confinements provide jobs in rural counties as well as a market for local grain farmers, and help hold down the market price of the most widely consumed meat in the world.

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