This is not a story about junk bonds or shady hedge fund schemes. It's a story about industrial-scale cow-poop and the potentially deadly, explosive methane gas it produces.
Today, rising 20 feet or more in the air above the sprawling cornfields of eastern Indiana are several giant bubbles filled with bovine intestinal gas, trapped within the expandable synthetic liner that was supposed to seal a 21-million-gallon "waste lagoon," stopping seepage into the soil and groundwater below.
For a few years now, neighbors have genuinely feared living around the expanding crap-bubbles -- located at the now-bankrupt Union Go Dairy, in the tiny farming hamlet of Winchester, east of Muncie near the razor-straight Ohio border. The dairy, a confined animal feeding operation, or CAFO, is typical of industrial-sized milk factories, which store huge amounts of liquefied waste in open pit lagoons.
I wrote about the plight of Winchester residents in my new book, ANIMAL FACTORY: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment:
In the summer of 2008, residents of Randolph County saw one of the strangest sites anyone could remember seeing in a long, long time. Rising high out of the cornfields nearly 20 feet into the air were six massive brown bubbles, growing by the day. It was the synthetic liner of a dairy lagoon: Gasses had built up underneath the liner, bulging the material way up into the air. People were genuinely afraid that the whole thing was going to blow.
Allen Hutchison was one of them - The "bubble trouble" lagoon was very near his house. Instead of shutting down the dairy, IDEM (Indiana Department of Environmental Management) actually approved a proposed expansion on the facility. Meanwhile, the whole time that the gas-filled old liner remained in place, IDEM never checked any of the neighbors' wells, nor did they require the dairy operator to increase his own groundwater testing. Hutchison and his neighbors grew increasingly worried not only about giant methane bubbles exploding into apocalyptic balls of fire, they also lost sleep over the potential contamination of their wells.
The crap-bubbles of Winchester have now gone national, as documented in a March 25 article by Laura Etter of the Wall Street Journal, who writes that the failing dairy's owner, Tony Goltstein, hatched a risky and questionable plan to deflate his bubbles and soothe his neighbors' ragged nerves:
"He's game to pop the bubbles before the manure pool overflows and causes an even bigger stink. His neighbors aren't happy with the plan," she wrote. "Not to worry, said Mr. Goltstein as he stood at the edge of the manure pit, puffing on a cigarette and gazing at the bubbles glistening in the sun. "I have no fear popping them."
Goltstein told state officials that he and his son would blithely paddle out onto the waste lagoon, armed with a Swiss Army knife to rend the bubbles open. Etter said that officials were considering the idea, but my contacts in Indiana tell me they have thought the better of it.
So wither the gigantic crap bubbles? It's an excellent question. Even more pressing is the question of who will pay to replace the lagoon liner or, in the event of an unthinkable, nauseating and potentially deadly bubble burst, who will pay to clean up that ungodly mess?
"How are they going to burst those bubbles?" Barbara Sha Cox, a local anti-CAFO activist told me. "I mean, are there any professional lagoon bubble poppers out there? How do you do this safely? It's a huge concern for the county and four our health."
Barbara has been warning about CAFO cleanups for years, and urging the state to require "financial assurance packages" for factory farms - essentially putting down a bond in the event that a catastrophic event carries an astronomical cleanup price tag.
Union Go Dairy has filed for Chapter 11 protection and is undergoing bank foreclosure proceedings, meaning Goltstein will never be able to cough up the $200,000 or more needed to fix the science-fiction style problem.
Ms. Sha Cox predicted this predicament, and she is rightly furious with the state. "My question to IDEM was, since Union Go is in foreclosure and bankruptcy, and has a law suit against them, if IDEM approves the plan and the bubble blowing causes damage to neighbors' property or livestock, who will be liable?" she told me.
"They are not sure. They said it was a 'legal question?'" she continued. "Well, it seems to me that if we had a financial assurance plan we would not be facing this issue."
If factory farms want to operate, they should have a bond to cover any future environmental disaster they might cause. Apparently, Governor Mitch Daniels - the former Budget Director in George W. Bush's White House, doesn't see things that way. He thinks taxpayers should foot the bill - and it has happened before.
"Muncie Sow, in Delaware County, was closed and the facility was allowed to be sold to another party without proper closure and environmental clean up," Barbara Sha Cox said. "When IDEM finally made the move to clean up the area, the cost was over $200,000 at taxpayers' expense. Then, of course, the rest of the pollution went down the river while killing the fish and polluting a recreational area. The CAFO owner has not appeared in Court."
Meanwhile, this is not the first time that Union Go has disturbed the tranquility and well-being of its neighbors. As I write in ANIMAL FACTORY:
Another time, Allen Hutchison discovered that the USDA had come out to the dairy and put out poison bait for the thousands of starlings that swirl around mega-dairies, creating a nuisance and health hazard for cows and people. No one had told the Hutchisons of the plan. They found out about it one night after waking up to the screams of dozens of dying birds -- all over their property.
The next day, Allen counted 87 stiff and lifeless starlings that he put into plastic bags for disposal. It took all morning, and no one from the dairy or the USDA offered to help. Allen has also found cow hides in his yard that he must pick up and dispose of because of the health risk of dead animals parts in the yard.
No one paid for that ghastly cleanup, except for Allen Hutchinson.