PLANS for Bartholomew County’s largest-ever confined feeding operation for hogs near Anderson Falls Park have neighbors worried about a reduction in their quality of life.
Crop producer William Gelfius of Hartsville wants a zoning exception for 11.7 acres on the north side of his 378-acre farm property along East County Road 200N. That would clear the way for the first 80- by 400-foot swine building capable of housing 4,400 head of wean-
to-finish swine this year.
A second identical building could be built on the property within four years if market conditions warrant, said Justin Gelfius, the applicant’s son. If and when the two barns are complete, the operation could house up to 8,800 hogs.
The Gelfius property is along the Bartholomew-Decatur County line about 1.5 miles northwest of Waynesburg, in Clifty Township.
There are currently seven large-scale hog farms in Bartholomew County, the largest of which has a 3,000-head capacity, according to a county Board of Zoning Appeals staff report.
“Eight thousand, eight hundred (hogs) is not farming, it’s an animal factory,” said Jim Murray, who addressed the board as a concerned neighbor, not in his capacity as Bartholomew County Solid Waste Management District director.
Murray was among about 135 people who attended Monday night’s hearing on the matter before the Bartholomew County Board of Zoning Appeals.
Of the 26 speakers who had up to 3 minutes each to address the board, only six spoke in support of Gelfius’ proposal.
The crowd stretched into the hallway outside the county council chambers, with a few toting signs that read: “No pig factory on 200 North.”
Making his case
But Gelfius, a 55-year farmer, and his son assured the board their two years of research into the proposed project will result in state-of-the-art equipment and farming methods, including a 10-foot concrete manure pit, which they say would minimize odor and potential health problems.
After manure liquifies in the pit, it would be injected 3 to 6 inches below the soil in crop fields at a level that allows nutrients to reach the roots, said agricultural environmental consultant Kristin Whittington of Landmark Enterprises LLC of Edinburgh.
At that depth, the soil and manure bind together and greatly decreases the potential of rainfall to carry contaminants to neighboring properties and waterways, said Whittington, who is helping Gelfius navigate county and state applications to build the barns.
William and Justin Gelfius said if there was any chance the large-scale hog operation could wind up harming neighbors or the environment, they would not have submitted the proposal.
The greatest potential environmental impact expressed by opponents deals with the close proximity of the hog barns to both Anderson Falls and other natural water resources.
If approved, the buildings will be about 700 feet from the Fall Fork branch of Clifty Creek, which feeds Anderson Falls and eventually empties into the East Fork White River near Columbus, said Clifty Township resident Kathy Reese.
“The geographics in this case do not place the drinking water in Columbus in any real danger,” said Columbus Utilities Director Keith Reeves, who explained that the municipal water supply is drawn from groundwater, not from the river.
“Even if Clifty Creek would become contaminated, it joins East Fork White River a mile and a half downstream from Columbus.”
But Reeves said contaminants originating from Clifty Creek do have the potential to impact individual wells and kill fish south of where it empties into East Fork White River.
Foes speak up
Dr. Kristopher Williams said living near a field fertilized with pig manure significantly increases the risk of being infected with dangerous bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.
The antibiotic-resistant bacteria is responsible for more than 80,000 annual invasive infections in the U.S. that can be deadly for those with weakened immune systems, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.
Williams, an orthopedic surgeon from Seymour, and other investors lease property across from the Gelfius farm.
While Gelfius said a 33-foot-wide buffer strip that would include trees and other barriers would be placed north and east of the buildings to separate them from the creek, Murray said most surrounding ground wells appear to be encased in karst, a soluble bedrock he described as “incompetent limestone with cracks and fissures.”
According to Murray, karst has a greater potential for allowing water contamination than most other soils.
The smell of hog manure was another frequently expressed concern during the hearing.
William Gelfius maintained that several trees bordering his property would act as a buffer and provide a level of protection. Justin Gelfius added that additional trees would be planted to provide more protection.
“Trees don’t abate the stench,” Murray said in response.
Greg Griffin, who sold the acreage proposed for the hog operation to Gelfius, told the board that most existing trees are located on his neighboring 90 acres of land. Since Griffin plans to build two houses and accompanying wells on his property, he told the board he cannot guarantee those trees won’t be removed to make way for future development.
One house is being built for a family with a young girl known to suffer health problems that might be aggravated by the swine operation, Griffin said.
“If I had known a hog barn was going up there, I never would have sold (the property to Gelfius),” he said.
Several speakers also claimed County Road 200N, where the entrance to the proposed barns would be located at the bottom of a hill, is too narrow and fragile to handle heavy truck traffic that would be generated by a large-scale confined feeding operation.
That additional traffic could pose danger to children living nearby, especially those living in a housing addition on nearby Meadow Drive, located off 200N, about a mile west of the proposed hog barns, neighbor Tim Scheidt said.
“The size of this operation is not reasonable at this location,” Scheidt told the board.
Several speakers expressed concern of a large-scale hog farm’s potential impact on neighboring property values.
“What do I do when my property values plummet?” Kathy Reese asked the zoning board. “Nobody is going to buy a farm next to a hog operation.”
Neighboring Anderson Falls Park is a protected nature preserve that attracts visitors for its natural beauty and wildlife, said Charlie Mitch, chairperson of Winding Waters, Columbus’ chapter of the Sierra Club.
“If you would consider this appropriate for a CAFO, is there any place you would consider inappropriate?” Mitch asked the zoning board, a question that drew a large round of applause from the crowd.
Confined feeding is the raising of animals for food, fur or recreation in lots, pens, ponds, sheds or buildings, where they are confined, fed and maintained for at least 45 days during any year, and where there is no ground cover or vegetation present over at least half of the animals’ confinement area, according to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
In his Dec. 23 conditional use application, William Gelfius wrote that the hog operation would be constructed and operated in accordance with Indiana Department of Environmental Management regulations.
But longtime Indiana conservation officer Zach Matthews said IDEM’s involvement does not provide Gelfius with assurances.
“IDEM issues a permit up front, and responds only after the fact (of environmental damage),” Matthews said. “We cannot depend on IDEM to protect us. It would be like putting a (spent) bullet back into a gun.”
The permit application is expected to be submitted to IDEM next week, with a judgment made within 45 days, Whittington said.
A number of opponents vocally agreed with testimony from six supporters that William Gelfius has long established himself as a responsible farmer, a good and caring neighbor and an honorable individual.
But others focused on the consequences of unforeseen and uncontrollable events such as soil erosion caused by heavy rains and power outages.
IDEM regulations require large-scale hog producers to watch the forecast for a three-day period of dry weather, and only inject manure into the soil on the second day, Whittington said.
In addition, power generators will be installed to assure electrical outages don’t create a public health threat, Justin Gelfius said.
At the conclusion of the three-hour meeting, board chairman DeWayne Hines’ motion to approve the request failed to receive a second. Instead, the board voted to postpone a decision until Feb. 24.
Board members said they have not decided whether to allow more public comment during the Feb. 24 meeting.