‘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

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.”

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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.

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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 riskle[email protected]

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]