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What is fouling the beaches of Huron?
E. coli source subject of angry debate
By Joseph Hall
Toronto Star
01/03/04

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," Pickering shouts.

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 Coast" playground.

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 says.

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 plants.

"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 millimetres apart.

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 out.

"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 says.

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 fear-mongering."

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 systems.

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 there.

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 doing?

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 since boyhood.

"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 even more.

"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 require.

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, McElhone says.

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 now."

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 in 1996.

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