What is fouling the beaches of
E. coli source subject of angry debate
By Joseph Hall
GODERICH-At the crack of the pen door, they spring to
their feet with the precision timing of a rising flock
of starlings. And they send up a cascading bout of squealing
that would drown out a jet engine.
It's the deafening sound of 330 pregnant sows, screeching
for their breakfast.
"They know it's feeding time," barn manager
Chad Pickering screams out over the early-morning din,
which is shaking the rafters of this 2,700-pig Premium
Pork hog operation near the village of Lucan, Ont.
"They're pigs and they really do love to eat,"
Unfortunately, much of what goes in one end of these
hungry, crated hogs is bound to come out the other.
And what's been coming out of the 600,000 or so pigs
that call the Huron County area home has been feeding
a growing concern and controversy.
Health officials in the western Ontario farm and cottage
community have permanently posted five beaches along 40
kilometres of Lake Huron shoreline as unsafe for swimming.
Those beaches, including Amberly, Ashfield, Port Albert,
Goderich Main and Black's Point, had regularly showed
E. coli levels well above sometimes 50 times above-provincial
standards for safe swimming.
The reaction - often as quarrelsome as the ruckus raised
by the pre-slopped sows - has been marked by finger pointing,
denials and angry debate among cottagers, officials and
farmers as the community grapples with an environmental
mess threatening its reputation as Ontario's "West
The problem, to put it bluntly, is feces.
In particular, it's E. coli - the stomach-churning pathogen
of Walkerton infamy - that inhabits animal and human waste.
While not all strains of E. coli are harmful to humans,
their presence in water samples is an indicator that something
sickening could be lurking.
Over the past decade, levels of E. coli have been so
persistently high in tests along portions of the county's
Lake Huron waterfront that local health officials appeared
to basically give up on five of their beaches.
In all, half of the water samples taken at beaches by
the Huron County Health Unit during the 1990s failed to
meet provincial water quality standards. Testing in some
lake-feeding streams has shown levels 100 times higher
than the standards.
County authorities insist, however, that the permanent
postings were simply a cost-saving measure, allowing the
cash-strapped municipality to concentrate expensive testing
on other beaches and waterways.
"Those beaches have been posted (on a regular basis)
for the past 10 years; we just decided to quit putting
the signs up and pulling the signs down," says Dr.
Beth Henning, medical officer of health.
Henning says it's "most unfortunate" that the
permanent posting strategy has been misinterpreted, in
national media coverage, as a sign that pollution problems
are increasing. "In fact, the data has remained fairly
stable over the past 10 years."
Henning's department has long urged local doctors to
report any illnesses that might be related to swimming
and contaminated water. Reports haven't come forth, she
But neither Henning nor any other county official claims
that the stability of pollution levels and lack of illness
reports mean there's nothing to worry about.
"We clearly have an issue to address," says
Scott Tousaw, the county's planning director.
Ontario environment commissioner Gord Miller has called
the county's pollution an "embarrassment" to
the province. "Of course there's a legitimate concern;
the kinds of bacterial contamination ... that turn up
in the streams are well beyond those we deem acceptable
in surface water in Ontario," Miller says. "Plus,
we've just had the permanent closure of five beaches ...
that constitutes an escalation of the problem."
The key question: Who or what is behind the problem?
Tousaw names three probable sources for elevated E. coli
levels: agriculture, septic systems and sewage treatment
"As to the relative percentage contribution of any
one of those categories ... there's been finger pointing,"
Tousaw says. "We, however, don't really think it's
very productive to lay blame."
But Mike McElhone, environmental co-ordinator of the
local (and vocal) Ashfield-Colburne Lakefront Association,
is less reticent to identify a culprit.
"I have this much doubt about where it's coming
from," says McElhone, placing thumb and forefinger
McElhone, whose cottage association has led and paid
for efforts to deal with the problem, says the big source
is the industrial-strength agricultural operations that
make Huron County the province's largest livestock - and
manure - producer.
On the surface, he seems to have good grounds for certainty.
With a human population of some 58,000, the county has
10 times as many pigs as people. Cattle outnumber Huron's
humans almost three to one, according to provincial statistics.
Refusing to identify the chief sources of contamination
will, McElhone argues, make it harder to devise strategies
to stem it.
To bolster its contention that agriculture is chiefly
to blame, McElhone's association, which claims 600 cottager
members, released a study assessing the DNA of E. coli
collected by the group in streams feeding the lake near
bacterial hot spots.
There are thousands of varieties of E. coli, most of
which display a marked preference for a particular species
of guts they care to inhabit. The study's DNA fingerprinting
suggested that the bulk of Huron County's E. coli came
from animal sources.
But this does not point to any specific species as the
main culprit, as farming associations and academics point
"It could be coming from wildlife, it could be coming
from land application of municipal bio-solids, it could
be coming from land application of manure, it could be
coming from septic systems," says Michael Goss, chair
of the University of Guelph's land management program.
Many have pointed to increasing deer in the area and
large waterfowl flocks as likely sources. The province's
Miller dismisses this argument, however.
"There have been birds and deer around for thousands
of years," he says. "How did we get clean water
to start with?"
Teresa Van Raay sits at the kitchen table in the pretty
farmhouse headquarters of her family's hog operation near
the hamlet of Dashwood. Passing out plates of cookies
to her guests, Van Raay says she's deeply hurt that her
industry has borne the brunt of public blame.
"Is there that much mistrust?" asks Van Raay.
"Looking at me, are you going to say, `You look like
someone who would (foul) their own water'?"
Van Raay has called together a group of prominent local
hog farmers this day to dispute the theory their pigs
are to blame.
"What hurts is that people might actually think
we would intentionally do something like that," she
Van Raay's kitchen cabinet includes Herman Lansink, CEO
of the giant Premium Pork operation in Middlesex County,
near the border with Huron.
"To check the water and say, `Let's blame the farmers,'
we find that hard to take," says Lansink, whose international
outfit has more than 50,000 breeding sows. "It's
Lansink and his quality assurance manager, Peter Kemmerling,
have spent several pre-dawn hours touring a reporter around
a Lucan-area barn and its "nutrient" control
For a facility containing several thousand pigs, it's
surprisingly clean and odour-free. Even to enter the barn,
visitors and workers are required to strip naked - rings
and jewelry included - then soap down in a double-entrance
shower and don fresh clothes on the other side.
So susceptible are the swine, in their close quarters,
to imported diseases that each newly arriving pig must
spend weeks in quarantine in another barn before joining
the main herd.
Each pig produces several kilograms of waste a day.
Cattle, while less abundant in the county, produce far
more feces per animal, Lansink says. A 200-head dairy
farm accounts for as many "nutrient" units as
a 1,000-pig hog operation.
"But we don't want to go down that road of saying
it's us versus them," says Brent Robinson, who runs
a 3,200-sow operation north of Seaforth. "We're all
farmers and we're all in the same nutrient game together."
Caged tightly to keep them from biting one another -
or from rolling over on to their Babe-like broods - the
pigs are placed with their back ends in the vicinity of
grates that take their waste below the floor and into
an extensive pipe system.
Mixed in the underground system with urine and the water
used during regular stall cleanings, the waste becomes
a dark and oily liquid, which is fed by gravity into two
giant concrete pools outside the barn.
The open air pools, 43 metres in diameter, can contain
up to 4.5 million litres of liquid manure. As odorous
and ugly as the tanks are, however, it's not here that
the manure has hit the fan in the ongoing controversy.
The sludge must be disposed of, and the vast majority
of it will be hauled by tankers and injected directly
into the soil across hundred of acres of farmland.
For the single Premium Pork barn that Lansink toured
this morning, the spread zone will encompass 600 acres.
It's at this stage that the murky mix of pig feces and
urine is rechristened as "nutrients."
"Nutrient management is one of the most important
things we have to contend with and it's something we take
very seriously," says Kemmerling.
"In fact, we have set the standard for nutrient
management practices in Ontario."
The rules for manure-spreading mainly govern what can
be in the liquid mix, and where and when it can be spread.
There are restrictions on spreading during wet weather,
on frozen ground, or near streams and drainage systems.
The amount of manure that may be spread on any field is
governed by the absorption capacity of the crops grown
But Goss says nutrient-management regulations mainly
focus on controlling nitrates and phosphates - the fertilizing
chemicals in manure - rather than pathogens like E. coli.
"The only thing that we've put together for protecting
water from pathogens is really a minimum distance separation
between spreading manure, and wells and surface-water
sources," he says.
And the question remains: If properties like Premium
Pork are setting the standards, what are other hog producers
McElhone, for one, is concerned about "absentee
landlord" hog operations, which dot the Huron countryside.
"These aren't farms, they're factories," he
says. "There's no home, no one lives there, just
pigs stacked two or three high."
Without pride of place or direct supervision by farm
owners, McElhone says, employees of these operations may
be tempted to flout environmental rules and spread "nutrients"
at inappropriate places and times.
McElhone, a retired trucking executive, stops his van,
cluttered inside with water pollution literature, at the
bridge where Highway 21 crosses over Nine Mile River,
about 15 kilometres north of Goderich.
The rivulet burbles on its race to Lake Huron, two kilometres
west. Tests here have revealed E. coli levels 260 times
higher than the provincial standard.
At the mouth of the stream sits Port Albert, a middle-class
cottage community that has been a McElhone family retreat
for three generations.
The Port Albert beach is one of the five that the county
permanently posted in 2003, effectively ending a love
affair with its lapping waters that McElhone has enjoyed
"My granddaughter was born one month ago, and my
daughter is on maternity leave and is talking about spending
the summer up here," McElhone says.
"I simply wouldn't let (granddaughter) Elizabeth
go in the lake now. Not at this point."
Mark MacAuley, who co-owns Port Albert's Inn, says the
beach closing is sure to hurt business. It has hurt the
sense of place he's developed over 52 years in Huron County
"It's an emotional thing here," says MacAuley.
"We've accepted that we might not ever have the same
standard of living that people in central Ontario have,
but we at least enjoyed nice clean air and the quiet.
"And the lake was always one of our great assets.
It was an integral part of our existence."
County officials hope the province's new Nutrient Management
Act, proclaimed in June, will help stem contamination.
Tousaw says the act will force existing farms to upgrade
their manure management systems to meet new guidelines,
something the municipalities didn't have the power to
But critics say the new provincial guidelines fall short
of actually protecting the watershed. For example, they
still allow manure spreading in winter, a risky practice,
Miller insists the new act is "just a framework."
"What really matters is the detail in the regulations,
and the more substantive regulations are only being drafted
Miller also blames the Huron situation, in part, on the
demise of a long-standing provincial program to clean
up rural beaches, which was killed by the old Tory government