A Labor Day walk on the Sangamon

Two years ago on Labor Day weekend after an unusually heavy rain, a man from northwest Champaign County up near Foosland took a walk. He walked his usual route where he liked to fish near the spot where Lone Tree Creek joins the Sangamon River.

Lone Tree Creek, a tributary to the Sangamon, originates in McLean County southwest of Foosland. An aptly named creek, Lone Tree drains several hundred acres as it winds its way through wide open farmland.

This time the man noticed something different. The water was stained a dark shade of brown and the fish in the Sangamon were near the surface, choking for air, and some were already belly up. As he walked, he noticed that more fish were belly up. And further up Lone Tree Creek were more fish, seemingly hundreds and hundreds of fish, all dead or dying.

He went home and called the Department of Natural Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency hotlines, where he got recordings. Naturally, state investigators had the holiday weekend off.   The spill was finally reported September 6th.

By the time agents arrived, even more fish were dead. The DNR estimated that 40,000 fish had died over nine miles of Lone Tree Creek and one mile of the Sangamon River. The fish included large and small mouth bass, sunfish, buffalo fish, carp, and minnows. In addition, an unknown number of other aquatic creatures had died including mussels, frogs, crayfish, and the salamander like mudpuppies, a threatened species in Illinois.

Initial investigations by the Illinois EPA indicated a manure-like substance was to blame. Initial suspicions turned to Stone Ridge Dairy, a 3,000-plus cow ‘Confined Animal Feeding Operation’ (CAFO) located several miles north of Mansfield near Bellfower. Stone Ridge Dairy, one of the largest CAFO’s in the state, is located on a ridge above a drainage that flows into Lone Tree Creek. Later investigations showed that Lone Tree and the Sangamon River had very high concentrations of ammonia, typical of animal waste.

However, in April of 2010, a farmer that lived in this area lost his barn to a fire. He dumped and abandoned nearly 250 bushels of soybeans that were stored in the barn on the ground, which happened to be near a drainage tile that also led to Lone Tree Creek. By September, the beans had “decayed into a black, odorous semi solid state”, according to the complaint filed with the Illinois Pollution Control Board.  And just before Labor Day that heavy rain probably washed much of this rotting bean stuff into nearby Lone Tree Creek. Investigations turned to this farm.

In April of 2012, this farmer was cited for violation of the Illinois Environmental Protection Act and Illinois Pollution Control Board Regulations for improper waste disposal. His fines could potentially have been as high as $150,000. He settled with the Illinois EPA for $3,000. So at this point, we can say that at best, a farmer’s unfortunate fire followed by his own carelessness in dumping beans was responsible for the death of 40,000 fish and an untold number of other aquatic creatures. Case closed.

But not quite.

Stone Ridge Dairy, while presumed innocent, remains under investigation as a possible contributor to the Labor Day fish kill, due to its location above Lone Tree Creek and since the heavy rains that weekend may have affected their operations as well.

Large scale confined animal feeding operations, known as CAFO’s, if not properly managed can have catastrophic consequences for our environment. In 2001, a dairy in Elmwood, near Peoria, purposefully pumped 2 million gallons of manure into a nearby pond and creek, killing thousands of fish. And in 2009, an estimated 200,000 gallons of manure spilled from a holding pond at an eastern Illinois hog farm into a creek, killing 110,000 fish.

And the numbers associated with the operation at Stone Ridge can be staggering. Each of their 3,000 cows generates as much as 65 pounds of manure per day, which makes 100 tons of manure generated DAILY. This must be dispensed with in lagoons and applied to their 1500 acres of farmland. Topographically, Stone Ridge sits near the headwaters of three creeks heading off in different directions; all tributaries to the Sangamon River: Lone Tree, Madden Creek, and Salt Creek.

At this point, this columnist would assume that Stone Ridge Dairy and other large scale livestock feeding operations hold themselves to the highest standards of environmental practice. I would assume that they take very seriously the stewardship of their lands, and would particularly wish to do no harm to surrounding lands that they don’t own, including nearby waterways such as Lone Tree Creek. Business owners who (presumably) oppose the heavy hand of government regulation would presumably act in ways that don’t invite it.

I would be among many who would be relieved should Stone Ridge Dairy be exonerated of any responsibility for the Labor Day fish kill in 2010. And I hope they never will be responsible for any such environmental tragedy in the future.

On Labor Day 2012 after an unusually heavy rain a man from northwest Champaign County near Mahomet took a walk.  He walked his usual route where he liked to kayak near the spot where Crooked Creek joins the Sangamon River. And when he looked at the river he noticed nothing especially different. No fish were near the surface breathing and no fish were belly up.

So far, so good.

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, September 6, 2012, by Scott Hays



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