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Scrapbook: On the Road With the Water Sentinels: Part 6

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December 03, 2010

On the Road With the Water Sentinels: Part 6


We pull into the small town of Madisonville around noon, where we meet Gene and Nancy Nettles, who've driven up from far-western Kentucky to meet us.

Gene, a former U.S. Army Colonel who did three tours of duty with the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, retired from the Army to farm in Fulton County, Kentucky, on the Mississippi River in the southwestern corner of the state. Now retired from farming, he is a clean-water activist who works closely with the Sierra Club's Water Sentinels Program.

"We live about two miles from a complex of hog barns," Gene says. "It used to be our pleasure to walk in our yard in the morning and spend our evening hours out on the patio. But once those hog barns went in, it changed everything—the odor invades your home and it invades your life. It gets so bad that sometimes it's almost like you're inside the hog barn itself rather than two miles away."

The Nettles' had already witnessed the effects of industrial-scale hog farming in North Carolina. "When we left Fort Bragg, the countryside was still beautiful," Gene says. "But I went back 20 years later and the same hills and streams that my children had enjoyed were now infected with odors and waste coming from the Smithfield hog barns."

So when the announcement came that Big Pig was coming to Fulton County, Gene's reaction was, "Whoh! I've got to do something—anything—to stop this or at least ameliorate the effects it will have on our water supply and the air we breathe in our county."


Above, a hog factory with sewage "lagoons." Below, the interior of an industrial hog barn.


"We organized a small group and got over 1,000 signatures on a petition, which is pretty significant in a county of 7,000 residents," Gene says. "From that we got an ordinance to try and protect our water supply and create adequate setbacks between factories and residences for odor control."

Unfortunately, the ordinance was challenged in court and ultimately thrown out. So the Nettles' and their working group began sampling the water below the hog barns and the fields where hog waste is applied as fertilizer. Where the terrain permits, they walk down to the water and collect samples by hand. If the bank is steep they use a ladder, and at some sites they use a stainless steel bucket that they lower by rope from a bridge. All testing is done with kits approved by the Kentucky Division of Water.

"Several of us have been sampling for about four years now, and we have a good database for those sites," Gene says. "We work with Kentucky Waterwatch and the Water Sentinels, and I'm now on the nitrogen & phosphorus team, trying to measure the effects of industrial agriculture on the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico." The group also has two active court cases going on.

"Some of the people in our class action lawsuit have had tremendous problems with water quality," he says. "One individual turned on the water to do her laundry and pig waste came right through and soiled her clothes. Others have complained about pig waste coming through their kitchen taps."

Nettles says the best advice he'd give to others who are concerned with the quality of their local waterways is to get organized so that everyone's on board and they recognize what the issues are. Below, Nettles with a factory farm in the background.


"Clean water is so important because it's one of the assets that we all own collectively—it's no one's property," he says. "The Water Sentinels are terribly important because they help bring us information about the real condition of our waters—within our state, our counties, our cities, and the impact that water quality has on everything from plant life to animal life to the quality of our lives as individuals. Water really is the staff of life."


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