Little Long Lake is so polluted, it will take 10 years to repair, environmentalists say

STEUBEN COUNTY, Ind. (WANE) — The lakes in the Black Creek and Fish Creek watersheds are polluted with e coli bacteria, endangering the health of Hamilton, Ball and Little Long Lakes.

Little Long Lake is already “severely compromised,” according to Steve Schroeder, board president for the Steuben County Lakes Council.

“It’s so polluted right now. If we could shut him (Schmucker) down today, it would be 10 years before it could recuperate. It’s like a third world country. Terrible,” said Schroeder, one of 30 people who spoke at the Steuben County Board of Zoning Appeals meeting Monday.

In a unanimous 5-0 vote Monday, the board denied Noah and Michael Schmucker’s application to run a 78-acre “cattle growing farm” with up to 8,000 cows. WANE 15 video from the meeting shows a packed auditorium at the Steuben County Community Center in Angola. The auditorium holds 500 people.

Residents said the Schmucker cattle growing proposal included four barns housing cattle that would stay on site for 16 weeks. Schroeder said the calves are bred in multiple farms dotting the Indiana-Michigan line that have to be hand-fed and then, at 200 pounds, are moved to the “growing operation.” Rarely do the cattle see the light of day, but spend their lives in the barns until they reach 700 pounds and are sent to the slaughterhouse, he added.

The impact is not just environmental, but a matter of traffic and air quality. The dirt roads are so narrow, it is impossible to have two semi-trucks pass, and so the roads must be turned into one-way operations, said Susan Kipfer Catterall, an activist with Michindoh Water Warriors who lives close to Hamilton Lake where homes typically reach $1 million in value.

Clint Knauer, director of building and planning in Steuben County, said Schmucker could refile a year after the denial unless “changes have been made for the reasons for the denial.” A call to Noah Schmucker went unanswered.

Although Knauer’s office needs to read through the board members’ voting sheets, the reasons cited by residents and officials from the highway and health departments are:

— need for a specific truck route

— need for secondary fencing to make sure the cattle cannot escape

— names and phone numbers to contact in case the cows get out

— a plan for vector control i.e. rats, insects and pests that may be attracted to the site

— the number of trucks per day

— restriction of operational hours as far as semi-trucks; no traffic before 6 a.m. and after 10 p.m.

— concern over noxious smells. Manure is stored in barns for up to 180 days to compost

— potential reduction of property values

Activists and residents looking to IDEM for help

But the residents say the existing 40-acre Schmucker farm on County Road 1000 East at the Ohio border is already doing irreparable harm and are calling on the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) to make changes.

Waste goes “straight from the manure pit right into the Black Creek. It’s pretty much a direct and constant feed,” Schroeder said. Black Creek feeds into Hamilton Lake. ”It’s our biggest nightmare right now. It’s so polluted.”

E coli readings over 235 parts per million would be “unfit for human contact,” said Schroeder, whose organization conducts water quality testing throughout the area. “The readings out of Black Creek this fall were 8,664 parts per million, 36 times that amount.”

The problem with IDEM is “they’re not doing their job. They’re understaffed. They should have shut this guy down. They’ve (Schmuckers) already ruined Little Long Lake,” resulting in lost tax dollars. “People can’t even use the lake. IDEM should be all over this.”

IDEM spokesman, Barry Sneed, sent a statement Tuesday afternoon:

As background, in 2008, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling clarifying provisions of the “CAFO Rule,” which only requires CAFO-classified farms to apply for NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permits when they intend to discharge pollutants into U.S. waters.

However, Indiana has no NPDES permits for CAFOs because farms are not approved to discharge pollutants into Waters of the State. Instead, Indiana issues state-specific CFO (Confined Feeding Operation) permits.

Indiana’s CFO permits are more stringent and encompassing than what the U.S. EPA requires, as regulations apply to smaller farms along with the larger CAFO farms typically identified by the EPA.

As long a permitted farm operates within the parameters of the state’s regulations, the state would not seek to revoke a permit.

New technology tracks DNA down to animal and source

Schroeder said a new technology, EDNA, tracks e coli down to the animal and down to the source. It’s a technology that just came into play a couple of years ago. The association has been taking water samples of all rivers, lakes and streams for 15 years, he added.

“We take some of our water samples that are high in e coli and we walk them back and keep testing until we find the source. The numbers don’t lie,” Schroeder said.

The problems arose after the existing Schmucker operation on 40 acres with 880 cows was approved in 2016.

“All of the sudden, our numbers on our streams – Black Creek and Fish Creek, were going crazy with e coli and phosphorus. The two usually go hand in hand,” Schroeder said. “We started testing upstream until we found the source. It was Schmucker. If Mr. Schmucker tells you he’s got 1,500 head of cattle in Indiana, you can bet he’s got double that. They’re not good neighbors and they’re not who they profess to be.”

Schroeder familiarized himself with the Schmucker operation and says the Schmucker family owns 59 farms in that area and their relatives operate feeder farms. “They own a lot of ground in Ohio and Michigan. We call it Schmuckerville.”

Kipfer Catterall says a property records search indicated that Schmucker owns around 970 acres in Ohio.

Cattle operation is bigger across Ohio line

Knauer said the smaller farms where the calves are bred until they reach 200 pounds operate under the “right to farm” law. Farmers can raise under 300 animals and it’s not regulated. It’s a permitted use under state agricultural law. Knauer added that the Schmuckers have one operation in Indiana, but their operation is much bigger across the line in Ohio.

“I want to see IDEM step up,” says Kipfer Catterall. “The regulators give them a heads up when they’re coming and so they can shift their cows around from family farm to family farm because it’s all one family. This has been going on since 2016 and it’s way too long.”