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CAFO pollution in Lenawee County, Michigan, USA


Over the past several decades, meat consumption in the US has been on the rise. American annual per capita consumption of meat rose from 144 pounds in 1950 to 222 pounds in 2007. Consumption of beef rose from 44 pounds in 1950, to 66 pounds in 2007. Livestcok production has also changed from hundreds of thousands of independent farmers with reasonably sized operations to a few thousand mega-farms. Factory farming is facilitated by three policy changes pushed by the largest agribusinesses: A series of farm bills artificially lowering the cost of crops destined for livestock feed; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ignoring factory farm pollution; and the Department of Justice (DOJ) allowing the largest meat-packers to merge into a virtual monopoly [6]. This has led to the rise of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, large-scale feedlots where thousands of dairy cattle, poultry and pigs are confined for their entire lives [1]. 

Michigan previously had a long history of small family farms who are now outcompeted by more than 200 CAFOs, many of their facilities sited very close to rural residents. CAFOs took over Michigan since the 1990s because weak regulations and inadequate funding have steadily diminished or repealed environmental regulations [1]. Moreover, because federal and state policies consider them as economic development projects, the government thus subsidizes them with millions of dollars of public money. What some call a welfare system for large industrial agribusinesses pretending to be family farmers, CAFOs pay very little to no taxes and get development right exemptions. CAFOs also get guaranteed prices for animal products and additional funding for things such as waste transport or putting up barns that family farmers cannot receive aid for [6]. Michigan’s livestock and dairy industries are well-connected in the state, with ties to the Department of Agriculture and footholds in nearly every county [1]. Yet CAFOs actually worsen economic destablilization. Siting their facilities in lower-income areas where people a re less able to fight back, CAFOs promise jobs but end up using machines instead of skilled manual labor and give employment to migrant labor camps instead of locals. They also take business away from local communities [6]. CAFOs, usually operated by large conglomerates without connections to the local communities, have impacted the property values of homes and farms adjacent to them, with declines of up to 70% in some rural counties [1].

Furthermore, these industries have dire environmental consequences. CAFOs can house as few as 700 and as many as millions of animals in confined spaces with no natural vegetation, either in outdoor pens or in huge windowless structures. The animal excrement produced daily at a medium-sized CAFO amounts to that of a city with 69,000 people. High-pressure sprayers remove waste from the floors using powerful chemical solvents. The runoff is then channeled into huge open pits or vats on the CAFO’s property, where it remains untreated. This toxic brew of feces and urine, chemical agents, pesticides, hormones, bacteria such as e. coli, antibiotics, blood and even birth fluid and decaying carcass parts is left to ferment for weeks, creating noxious fumes and dangerous chemical compounds like methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. The waste is then trucked or piped to nearby fields, where the untreated substance is sprayed as “fertilizer,” seeping into ground water supplies and running off into local streams and rivers. Family farmers, economically stretched to near collapse, are often paid by CAFO operators to allow them to spray their fields, creating toxic conditions on their property. The resulting fumes and toxic waste in the water supply lead to significant health problems for those living nearby, such as hydrogen sulfide poisoning and giardia. CAFOs have recently been identified as some of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, as well [1, 6]. There are a number of other health affects that also come from living around a CAFO including asthma, bronchitis, tension, depression, sore throat, diarrhea, burning eyes, and “blue baby syndrome,” a blood disorder that can lead to death [5].

Soy and corn farmer Lynn Henning began finding manure leaking into the water shortly after CAFOs infiltrated her rural community in Clayton, Lenawee County. Her mother and father in law, in their 80s at the time and living within 300 meters of a CAFO, were soon diagnosed with hydrogen sulfide poisoning and resulting irreversible brain damage [1, 2]. 12 CAFOs are now within 10 miles of her home [2, 3, 4]. Between them they house about 20,000 dairy cattle and 10,000 hogs, which are said to produce more waste than the city of Chicago. Some of these CAFOs were set up by a company in the Netherlands that recruited local farmers there and helped them relocate here, promising them the opportunity to farm in a place with plenty of land and fewer costly environmental regulations than exist in the Netherlands. The rest are owned by locals who decided to go big after the Dutch dairies moved in. One elderly couple who live across from a CAFO called Henning to tell her they were considering suicide. Their well was contaminated, they couldn't go outside, couldn't open their windows. They had to wear face masks. Their children wouldn't visit because the stench was so bad, and they couldn't sell their house because no one else wanted to live there. "They felt they were worth more dead," Henning says [2].

In 2000, someone reported a CAFO for discharging manure into a creek (heavy rains later pushed it into nearby Lake Hudson). The owner wrongly blamed Henning for calling in the complaint [2]. To find out more about the accusation, she started filing federal Freedom of Information Act requests, and as she learned more she became more alarmed [3]. This promted Henning and other concerned neighbors to form Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan (ECCSCM), and they began organizing to bring the CAFOs to justice. Reaching out to neighbors, fellow farmers and EPA enforcement officials, Henning gathered as much information as possible about CAFO pollution spills, their locations and points of origin. Regularly driving a 125-mile circuit multiple times a week to track CAFO operations, Henning began to understand the practices at CAFO sites that were causing the pollution of the area’s waterways. Educating herself and others about regulatory practices, aerial photographing, and water sampling, Henning, already a respected community leader deeply rooted in the land and well-connected to those around her, began calling on state and federal authorities to hold livestock factory farms accountable to water and air quality laws [1, 2, 4, 8]. In 2001 she became a water sentinel for the Sierra Club. Using her knowledge as a farmer and her natural talent for research, she began to map out how the CAFOs were polluting—connecting the manure discharges to their source. Though almost entirely self-taught, she and the ECCSCM eventually compiled more data on these local operations than the state agencies responsible for regulating them. Those agencies are not only underfunded and understaffed but, according to Henning, many of the employees dislike fieldwork and are not as invested in the community and its shared pride in farmer identity [2, 7]. 

Henning brought her data and tools to state regulators to encourage them to take stronger enforcement action, sharing her monitoring techniques and aerial documentation, as well as her findings on CAFO pollution. As a result, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) levied hundreds of citations against Michigan CAFOs for environmental violations. In 2008, for the first time in its history, the government denied the permit for a proposed CAFO thanks to Henning’s findings. While a new permit was later granted, the community crafted an appeal with Henning’s support. Henning regularly traveled to assist other communities across the country challenging CAFOs. She also helped form a statewide committee made up of representatives of the state departments of agriculture and health and Michigan citizens groups charged with conducting a first-ever assessment of the environmental impacts of CAFOs on public health [1].

As a result of her activism, Henning and her family were subjected to harassment and intimidation. Her mailbox has been blown up, dead animals were left on her front porch and car, and she was followed and run off the road while doing water quality monitoring [1, 5, 9]. Someone fired a gunshot through the window of her 2-year-old granddaughter’s bedroom in December 2009, and the family then had to begin regularly moving between friends’ and relatives’ homes. Her church pastor asked her to find another place to worship because CAFO owners kept looking for her there and picking fights. One of the local farmers who now operates a CAFO next to the Henning farm was in their wedding 32 years ago. Now he called Henning a “terrorist” for her mobilization in reaction to the CAFOs. “We have lots of family farmers that support us, but they won't come forward because they'll be harassed and intimidated," she commented [2]. Despite the danger, she went back to work in order to “set a good example” and to save the lives of many who are being poisoned by the pollution [4]. In her words, “I have two children and I have a grandchild, and if I don’t try and do something to keep the water and the air clean, and the land alive, as a family farmer, I am doing just as much damage as they are” [9]. She also understands that some people in her community are only angry because they rely on money from CAFOs renting out their property and does not wish to divide the community [3]. 

Despite these threats, Henning has continued to help farming communities mitigate the effects of pollution from factory farms and works as a field representative for the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project (SRAP). In 2015, together with the SRAP she launched a National initiative called the Water ranger program, training those affected by CAFOs to become citizen scientists [1]. Moreover, in the past ten years, with the help of Light Hawk, a volunteer group of pilots, Henning and the ECCSCM has recorded more than 1,000 citations that state and federal agencies have issued against these 12 CAFOs for violations of laws such as the Clean Water Act, resulting in compliance orders, fines, and lawsuits worth more than $1.4 million. Henning’s research methods have become such a valuable asset that the Sierra Club used her data to make an online map of CAFOs so people all over the country can now learn how to monitor and report the pollution practices of factory farms in their area [2, 3]. State Line hog farm was shut down after Henning found that the surrounding air quality had up to 9 parts per million of hydrogen sulfide. Ten parts per million are enough to cause unconsciousness [3]. Henning frequently files complaints on behalf of other residents so that they can remain anonymous and trains state workers to help [2, 4]. Thanks to her efforts and collaboration beyond the local, the family farmer movement is growing across the country to expose the injustices of CAFOs and how they externalize costs to host communities [6, 9]. Additionally, the Michigan Department of Environment is drafted a new ban on dumping industrial agricultural waste during January, February, and March after previous comprehensive and year-long bans were rejected. This is a small but victorious step forward towards what Henning and supporters hope to be a total permanent ban [10].

Basic Data

Name of conflict:CAFO pollution in Lenawee County, Michigan, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:Michigan
Location of conflict:Lenawee County
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Biomass and Land Conflicts (Forests, Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock Management)
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Intensive food production (monoculture and livestock)
Specific commodities:Live Animals

Project Details and Actors

Project details

The business model is to slaughter and sell as quickly as possible. CAFOs are officially defined as "small, medium or large" by the number of "animal units" they contain. For example, a Large CAFO has 700 or more dairy cows, or 2,500 or more pigs weighing more than 55 pounds, or 30,000 or more laying hens if using a liquid manure handling system [6].

Type of populationRural
Start of the conflict:01/01/1990
Relevant government actors:Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Justice, Department of Environmental Quality
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan
Socially Responsible Agricultural Project
Sierra Club

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:International ejos
Local ejos
Social movements
Local government/political parties
Local scientists/professionals
Landless peasants
Religious groups
Trade unions
Wastepickers, recyclers
Industrial workers
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Shareholder/financial activism.
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Refusal of compensation


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Soil contamination, Waste overflow, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Noise pollution, Soil erosion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover
Potential: Global warming, Genetic contamination
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Infectious diseases, Accidents, Malnutrition, Occupational disease and accidents
Socio-economical ImpactsPotential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Land dispossession, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Militarization and increased police presence, Violations of human rights


Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Criminalization of activists
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
Court decision (undecided)
Strengthening of participation
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
Under negotiation
Violent targeting of activists
Application of existing regulations
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:Hennings and her supporters successfully managed to not only expose and create a widespread movement in reaction to CAFOs' injustices, which were relatively unknown beforehand, but also file countless citations, lawsuits, compliance orders, and fines, even shutting down one hog farm. Bans and stricter regulations are in the works.

Sources & Materials

[3] CS Monitor. One farmer acts to save environment from factory farms (Zipp 2010)

[4] Moral Heroes. Lynn Henning. (Kile 2011)

[5] HydrateLife. Lynn Henning (2012)

[6] The Ann Arbor News. Lynn Henning named winner of the Goldman Environmental Award (Bayer 2011)

[7] Sierra Club. Water Sentinel Lynn Henning Wins Planet Defender Award (Vattin 2012)

[8] Planet of the animals. In Praise of Lynn Henning: An Activist Who Has Made a Huge Difference (2010)

[9] The Environment Magazine. Don’t mess with grandma (Mueller 2010)

[10] Food & water watch. Michigan's Step to Crack Down on Winter Manure Spreading Falls Short of Full Ban (Rose 2019)

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

SRAP Donation page

Sierra Club CAFO Map

Other documents

Lynn Henning Photo: Goldman Prize

Meta information

Contributor:Dalena Tran, ICTA, [email protected]
Last update28/03/2020
Conflict ID:4988




Photo: Sierra Club


Photo: Michigan Radio