‘Factory’ Farms Are Poisoning Rural America’s Drinking Water — And It’s Becoming a Serious Environmental Crisis

Manure used as fertilizer has led to the contamination of drinking water, lacing rural American's wells with bacteria and nitrates.
By: | January 29, 2019 • 3 min read

The Gist: Industrial-sized farms are poisoning drinking water, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Over use of manure used as fertilizer on massive farming operations has led to contamination from bacteria and nitrates. Citing research from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the WSJ writes, “Nitrate concentrations rose significantly in 21 percent of regions where USGS researchers tested groundwater from 2002 through 2012, compared with the 13 prior years. The greatest increases were in agricultural areas.”


With one in seven Americans drinking from private wells and a more recent sampling showing the pattern continuing at a potentially greater rate, it’s led to a serious environmental crisis.

One particularly troubling quote comes from Lee Kinnard, who runs Kinnard Farms in Wisconsin. He said farmers are under pressure to produce milk and cheese at low prices and that can’t happen without some effect on water: “The alternative here is a society that depends upon other countries to feed us.”

He does claim, however, that farmers are taking initiatives to be safer.

The Scope: Environmental Protection Agency data shows that nearly 500 public water systems in the U.S. exceeded federal nitrate limits in 2016. “That is a sliver of the nation’s 151,000 water systems but a 13 percent increase from the portion that surpassed the limit two decades earlier,” wrote the WSJ.

What It Means for the Insurance Industry: Environmental impairment loss exposures are a major risk in the operation of a modern-day farm because of drinking water contamination and other pollution-related issues.

Interestingly, insurance coverage farmers typically secure will not protect them, according to David Dybdahl, president, American Risk Management Resources Network, who wrote an intriguing International Risk Management Institute commentary on the topic.

He said, “Farm package insurance programs commonly sold to farmers do not provide any effective coverage for claims arising from gradual contamination of soil and water or from odors.” However, they can secure specialized environmental impairment insurance.

Litigation Has Begun: In Des Moines, Iowa, Water Works sued 10 northern Iowa drainage districts over high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River — but that case was dismissed by a federal judge.

“Farm package insurance programs commonly sold to farmers do not provide any effective coverage for claims arising from gradual contamination of soil and water or from odors.” — David Dybdahl, president, American Risk Management Resources Network

In Yakima, Washington, environmental groups sued three large dairy farms for drinking water contamination in federal court and fared much better: “In a settlement, the farms were ordered by the court to provide bottled drinking water to all residents for at least two years or until nitrate levels in the groundwater returned to safe levels.


In addition, the farms were responsible for the replacement, cleanup and monitoring costs of their manure storage structures and compost areas from the time of the settlement and into the future,” said Dybdahl. But, he warns, the matter is far from over and could take “decades to resolve” if expensive groundwater remediation is needed.

Learn More: The WSJ article is a fascinating read, with interviews with folks like Chuck Wagner, who owns 80 acres in northern Wisconsin and dug a 123-foot well — which he now calls a “$10,000 dirty hole in the ground.”

Another good read is an article from The Hill, claiming that the 2018 Farm Bill is a “free pass to pollute,” or this New York Times article detailing the water contamination problem in the heartland. &

Jared Shelly is a journalist based in Philadelphia. He can be reached at [email protected]

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.


That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.


Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]