“This is totally illegal,” says western Kentucky Sierra Club organizer Aloma Dew, snapping a photo of the turtle. “Piles like this are supposed to be covered within a month of manure being spread—this operator has never complied with the rules.”
“Not to mention that these are supposed to be ‘protected’ wetlands,” chimes in her husband Lee, of the Club’s Water Sentinels Program. The Dews often work in tandem in their efforts to keep western Kentucky’s waters clean, an increasingly urgent challenge now that factory farms—in particular, chicken CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations)—have arrived in force.
Five years ago, a light bulb clicked on in Aloma’s head. She knew about the “Tours de Sprawl” conducted by the Club’s Challenge to Sprawl Campaign. Why not host a “Tour de Stench” to let decision-makers and members of the media see and smell for themselves the adverse affects these giant factory farms are having?
In the summer of 2000, she led a convoy of vans carrying 35 people on a 200-mile tour of three counties, visiting with local residents en route. Participants included reporters from several Kentucky dailies, including the Louisville Courier-Journal, and print and TV reporters from Evansville, Indiana. All ran stories or editorials on factory farming, and Evansville’s ABC affiliate followed up with extensive investigative work on the subject.
There have since been more than 20 Tours de Stench, including a special 2-day tour by car and airplane in 2003 for reporter Mike Wagner of the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News, who made Kentucky CAFOs a major focus of a 6-part article on factory farming that was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
This October, I took a Tour de Stench with the Dews. Lee, a retired history professor who has made a second career as an environmental activist, imparts a litany of facts and statistics about factory farming as he pilots us over the back roads of Daviess, McLean, and Webster Counties.
We stop at the home of Bernadine Edwards on a rural back road in Mclean County. Three grandchildren play in the yard, and her daughter cradles a fourth in her arms. “Most days we wouldn’t be outside like this, the stink is so bad,” she says. “You got lucky today.”
In 1997, Edwards’ next-door neighbors were contracted by Tyson Foods to operate a chicken CAFO on their property. She and the wife next door used to be good friends, attending the same church, even vacationing together. But after Edwards objected to the scale of the operation, the neighbors stopped speaking to her. In fact, things have gotten downright hostile.
“You see that big pile of chicken poop right across the road,” she asks. “We were holding my husband’s memorial service, and right in the middle of it several trucks loaded with manure and dead chickens went right by the cemetery where we were gathered.” She adds that one evening she was in the yard when a bullet just missed her and went right through the kitchen window. “I couldn’t prove to you who it was, but I’ve got a pretty good idea.”
There are now 92 giant chicken houses within a 3-mile radius of Edwards’ home, and the operation across the road has mushroomed to 16 houses containing nearly half a million birds. “The fecal dust, chemicals, and smell from that place keep us indoors most days,” she says. “I have to keep my windows shut, and the house gets coated with grime; a lot of days it’s crawling with flies.”
Edwards says she used to be “a soft-spoken Catholic mother” who didn’t make waves. It was only when the stench and the noise next door became intolerable that she contacted the Sierra Club. In this neck of the woods, that means Aloma and Lee Dew.
“At first Bernadine was reluctant to speak out,” Aloma says, “but she’s become an excellent public speaker, and now she’s there whenever I need someone at a press conference. I can’t think of a person who’s a better model for how you build an activist. She’s a real hero in my book.”
Edwards says she joined the Sierra Club on account of the Dews. “Aloma and Lee have really given the Sierra Club a good name in these parts.”
For more, see the Club's factory farms Web site.
photo by Tom Valtin
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