TOLEDO, Ohio – State environmental regulators are investigating more a dozen farm manure spills that have seeped into creeks, rivers and ditches during the past two weeks.
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Most of the spills reported to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency have been linked to farmers who had put livestock waste on frozen and snow-covered fields. The spills come at a time when state lawmakers are moving toward banning the practice in the state's agriculture belt.
Gov. John Kasich has called for the ban as one way to reduce the pollutants that are feeding the annual algae blooms on Lake Erie that contaminated the drinking water for 400,000 people in Ohio and Michigan last August.
Rising temperatures and melting snow, especially in the last few days, have caused the manure to run off the fields and pollute waterways in the western part of Ohio where agriculture dominates the economy.
Water samples near the spills have found very high ammonia levels that can harm fish, but so far there haven't been any large-scale fish kills, Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler said.
The reports of manure washing into streams in the last week are "certainly a significant number" and a cause for concern, he said.
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"It's a little surprising after having all of the discussion over the past year and hearing that it's not best management practice to do this," Butler said.
Those responsible for the spills could face fines or be forced to pay the cleanup costs.
Seven manure spills were reported this week in Darke County, which is just northwest of Dayton along the Indiana state line and home to many large poultry farms. Other spills are being investigated in Paulding, Van Wert, Shelby, Portage and Ashland counties, according to the state EPA.
"This should not happen," said Joe Cornely, a spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation. "It's not acceptable."
The bureau, the state's largest and most influential agriculture organization, has led a campaign to encourage farmers not to put manure on frozen ground while also acknowledging that banning the practice would be costly for farmers who lack storage for the manure.
The organization this week announced support for legislation passed in the Ohio House that would prohibit farmers from dumping manure on frozen fields or when heavy rain is in the immediate forecast.
The farm bureau says the bill would allow farmers time to come into compliance. Designing and constructing storage and paying for it can't be done overnight, Cornely said.
The state Senate and Kasich have backed plans that don't include what environmental groups have called a loophole for farmers in the House measure that would allow violators to go unpunished.
Rep. Mike Sheehy, a Democrat from the Toledo suburb of Oregon who began calling for stopping the spread of manure on frozen ground well before Toledo's water crisis, said the recent manure spills show that it's a problem that needs to be dealt with now.
"Most farmers say they don't do this anyway," he said. "It's not a good practice."