Megan Fitzgerald lives near the large-scale hog farm under construction near Wenona.
“I’m actually one of the closest residents to the Sandy Creek and this proposed hog facility, less than a mile away,” Fitzgerald said.
That’s about a half hour south of I-80. She’s also a student at Illinois Valley Community College in Oglesby. For several years now, biology students at the school have tested nearby waterways to identify pollutants and bacteria. This year, they took on a new project. That’s because Sandy Creek is located near the future site of 20,000 head hog farm.
Right now, it’s a green light for the farm and a red flag for Fitzgerald.
“We worry not only about the creek, but our well water," she said. "If that gets polluted, we’re not sure what we will do because a lot of people are using it as drinking water, we use it for everything, and that is dangerous. That could hurt us, it could hurt our pets, it could hurt everyone involved.”
Last month, Fitzgerald joined a group of fellow biology students at the college to test the water to get baseline data from Sandy Creek. They plan to test the water near the hog farm periodically to compare the quality after the facility is in operation.
Student Ryan Pointer plans to continue testing as part of his studies next year.
“I would hate to see it just basically become a dump for the hog farm," Pointer said. “You know you don’t want to tell people around the local communities not to invest in businesses of that sort because the idea of business is to promote an economy for your community. But I would rather see businesses come into the area that bring everybody up with the business rather than destroy the environment your community lives in besides you.”
Nicolas Rippel represents VMC Management, which owns the hog farm. He insists the farm will take many measures to ensure no environmental damage is caused to nearby waterways. He says all manure will be contained in 8- and 10-feet deep pits. Manure will be injected 6 to 8 inches deep to avoid runoff and reduce odors. He also says his company has a good track record of environmental stewardship on the other dozen pig farms they manage.
According to Rippel, these measures will ensure the farm is environmentally sustainable. In addition, pig farmers are held to a zero-discharge standard in regulations to ensure manure from farms does not enter into waterways.
IVCC Geology instructor Mike Phillips is another neighbor of the hog farm. He says the students are a good first line of defense in case intervention is needed.
“The EPA, if they have some evidence that something’s going wrong, they can come in follow their own protocol and take action," he said, "and they have lots and lots of regulations to back them up.”
Phillips says there is a way to balance his concern with the facility with scientific data that will be collected by students every couple of months.
"So, for a scientist, you let the data drive the results," he said. "You don’t say, ‘I don’t like them, so I’m going to make sure that I find out it comes from that person.’ You say ‘We’ve got some water quality issues in this stream. What are some potential sources, and what can we do to try and address it?’”