Episode 53: Saving Lake Erie with Mike Ferner
Toledo found out about algal blooms when they caused the water supply to shut down for three days in 2014. Mike Ferner, activist and former Toledo city council member, and his group, Lake Erie Advocates, have the solution to the blooms but the Ohio statehouse isn’t listening. Is it too late?
Mike Ferner is a long-time environmentalist, including his time on Toledo City Council when he sponsored the largest investment in energy efficiency for municipal buildings in Ohio. He served as a Navy Corpsman during the Viet Nam war and as national President of Veterans For Peace. Mike worked as a union organizer for the American Federation of State, Counties and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and as director of communications for several national non-profit organizations. He is a founding member of Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie and has lived on that lake’s shore in Toledo for 35 years.
Lake Erie advocates discuss phosphorus loads in tributaries
Commission formed to investigate Maumee sewage issue
City of Toledo considers partnering with national gun violence reduction initiative
Read full transcript here
[0:00] This is Glass City Humanist, a show about humanism, humanist values, by a humanist. Here is your host, Douglas Berger. Toledo found out about algal blooms when they caused the water supply to shut down for three days back in 2014. Our guest today, Mike Ferner, activist and former Toledo City Council member, and his group, Lake Area Advocates, have the solution to the blooms. But the Ohio Statehouse isn’t listening. Is it too late? Glass City Humanist is an outreach project of the secular humanists of Western Lake Erie, building community through compassion and reason for a better tomorrow.
[0:50] Our guest today is Mike Verner. He is a longtime environmentalist. He used to be on the Toledo City Council, where he sponsored the largest investment in energy efficiency for municipal buildings in Ohio. He is a Vietnam War veteran, served in the Navy and was the national president of Veterans for Peace. He worked as a union organizer for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and as the director of communications for several national nonprofits. He’s the founding member of the Lake Erie Advocates, and he’s lived on the Lake Shore, Lake Erie Shore, for 35 years. Thank you for being with us today, Mike. My pleasure. Thank you, Doug. All right, we’ll get started with some basics here. What is the mission of Lake Erie Advocates?
[1:40] We primarily do public education, and the goal is to let the public know what’s going on with the animal feeding factories or factory farms and hope that enough people will care and demand changes so we can address what we think is the number one problem, causing Lake Erie to go toxic every summer. So we do a little bit of lobbying with the at the state legislature, not a whole lot. We mostly do public education, publications, presentations at different groups, demonstrations, picket lines, we have an airplane banner that we fly over big events in Toledo, that sort of thing. All with the goal of trying to get more people knowledgeable and concerned and hopefully active, in making the changes that we need to make.
[2:46] And how long has your group existed? We had our first public meeting early February or March of 2016. And I’m assuming that you probably have a large number of people in your group or, you know, it’s a pretty… Well, we have several hundred people on a mailing list to keep in touch with. We have monthly meetings, they’re the fourth Wednesday of every month at Grace Lutheran Church on Monroe Street in Toledo. And we get, it varies between 20 and 30 or 40 people at a good meeting at those monthly meetings. And we’ve got eight people on a coordinating committee that help to keep things moving in between those monthly general membership meetings. And I should add too that we have a really good active core of people, for example, just about a week ago, a little over a week ago, the Ohio EPA held hearings in Bowling Green.
[3:57] To get public comment on their draft plan to deal with the problem with Lake Erie. And 31 of our members showed up, held signs, A number of people testified at the hearing. And we can generally turn out a decent number of people at these kinds of events, which says a lot for the level of people’s concern. Now, you were talking about that hearing in Bowling Green, and I believe that that was part of the lawsuit.
[4:31] To compel the EPA to enforce the Clean Water Act? Yes, that hearing is the latest step in the process outlined in the Clean Water Act. And our group was an initial plaintiff in that lawsuit going back to 2017.
[4:55] Because the Ohio EPA was not going to follow the Clean Water Act and do what’s called a total maximum daily load, which is a really boring bureaucratic name for a plan to reduce the amount of pollution going into the lake. That’s what is mandated by the Clean Water Act. And we were a plaintiff in that suit until December of 2021. And we, or rather December of last year, December, 2022. And we pulled out of that suit, because we became familiar with what the Ohio EPA was going to require. And we did an adequate amount of research into the methods that they were recommending. And we found out that they do very little to address the problem, which is to keep all this excess phosphorus and nitrogen out of the streams that flow into Lake Erie, most of which come from these factory farms. So we just thought, how can we be part of this lawsuit, which. If it ever does force the EPA to do these TMDLs, which they’re now doing.
[6:19] You know, we’d have to say, well, you know, we won that one, but what did we win? We didn’t think that what the recommendations were gonna be, were going to be anything near what needs to be done. And that’s what we went to the hearing for in Bowling Green last week was to tell the Ohio EPA.
[6:37] Look, you know, we don’t know what you think you’re doing, but this is not going to deal with the problem And the problem is there are way too many of these factory farms in our watershed, with millions of confined animals in rather abject conditions, I should add. And you take all these literally billions of gallons of animal waste and spread it on the fields that drain into Lake Erie and gee, I wonder why we have a problem. And yet the Ohio EPA’s plan for fixing Lake Erie has nothing to do with moratorium on these facilities, or reducing them or reducing the number of animals, any of this stuff. So the source of the problem is conveniently ignored. And that’s what we were there to point out. And let’s be clear what we’re talking about too is we’re not talking about mom and pop farm growing soybeans and stuff. We’re talking about factory farms. Could you tell us a little bit about what these types of farms are? Yeah, well, we’re hearing more and more about them and it’s too bad we didn’t hear a lot about them back in the mid 90s when they first started coming to our watershed.
[7:57] And that’s when the Pandora’s box was opened up. So yeah, you have thousands of cows. For example, there’s a particular operation out in Williams County, it’s out near Bryan. Got 3,900 dairy cows. And they create as much waste, as much sewage, as the towns of Maumee, Perrysburg, Bowling Green, Sylvania, and Fremont.
[8:31] Now, all of those towns and towns a lot smaller than that have got to have sewage treatment plants. And yet, the law has been written in such a way that agriculture gets off. You know, they get a free pass. So this, like I said, in a whole watershed, there’s billions of gallons of this liquid manure that comes out of these factory farms. It’s put into lagoons that hold a few million gallons at each site. And then a couple of times a year, they pump it out of these lagoons, and take it out into the fields and spray this. And so what happens is, you know, as most people know, what we’re in now, most of the watershed for the Maumee River used to be the Great Black Swamp. And it is extensively drained. It’s lined with underground subsurface drainage about three feet below the surface to carry away the water so the fields can be farmed. And what happens when you put liquid manure on that ground, it goes the same place the rain does right into those tiles and out into the nearest ditch or stream. So, you know, the fixes that the Ohio EPA has recommended are all things we can go into some of the examples if you’re interested, but they’re all things that.
[10:01] Are going to have little to no effect on stopping that problem. Yeah, and I know that it’s typical, a typical practice is to take manure and spread it on the fields because a lot of, you know, the science behind it is that the ground would filter the sewage before it reaches the waterways, but because we have so many, so much drainage tile in this area that it doesn’t filter through, it just goes right into the drainage and right out to the water. Yeah, in a matter of minutes. I mean, experiments have been done, and we have this information on our website. Experiments have been done where purple dye was put into some of this liquid manure. It was spread on the field the typical way, and within 20 minutes, it was showing up at the end of the tiles dumping into the nearest ditch. So yeah, if there’s one place in the country that should not have this model of agriculture, it’s right here where we are. And yet we’ve got plenty of these things. And the state of Ohio, the Department of Agriculture is responsible for for issuing permits to operations that want to expand and new permits.
[11:29] And you’d think that since our water crisis in 2014, where we had no water for three days in August, that maybe they would at least have a moratorium on issuing any more new permits. But since that water crisis, they’ve issued over 50 with tens of thousands more animals, issued for our watershed. So, you know, we’re going in the wrong direction. People ask me, is the lake getting any better? And the only honest answer is no, it can’t get any better because we keep making the problem worse.
[12:04] For more information about the topics in this episode, including links used, please visit the episode page at glasscityhumanist.show. The city, recently the city of Maumee, which is a suburb of Toledo, admitted they had been dumping untreated sewage for at least 20 years into the Maumee River, which flows into Lake Gary, and people were rightly upset about it. Yeah. And Maumee’s going to have to pay for it. Yeah. Could you compare the Maumee mistake and the role of factory farms and the algal blooms that can be dangerous to us here in the Toledo area? Well, you’re right. What they did was illegal, and it went on undercover for a long time, as you said. And Maumee, meaning the people who pay for water and sewer services from Maumee, are going to have to pay probably tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars to fix their system.
[13:13] And I should mention that the water and sewer rate payers for Toledo have over the last, say, 15 years have put in a billion dollars in upgrading the sewage treatment plant that Toledo has and upgrading the stormwater system so that it doesn’t dump into the lake nearly as much as it did. So, you know, these are costs that people pay in order to protect the lake and protect our source of drinking water and it’s a cost that the factory farms avoid because they just dump their stuff on the fields and it goes away. Well, it goes away into our lake. And that’s called externalizing the cost of doing business. It’s something every industry has done, until there’s enough public pressure to make them stop doing it. Well, getting back to Maumee.
[14:13] Yeah, the rate payers are going to pay a hefty amount. Their water and sewer bills are going going to be going up if they haven’t already. And, but I need to mention that compared to the factory farm problem, what Maumee has been doing, although it was completely wrong, in reality, it was a very small portion of the problem. In fact, that one Williams County dairy that I mentioned with the 3,900 cows, that puts out 19 times more phosphorus comes, out of those dairy cows and is spread on the land, 19 times more phosphorus than was coming out of the Maumee sewage treatment plant if they didn’t treat anything at all. So, not that what Maumee is doing should be excused, it shouldn’t, but you know, you put it in perspective, you start to get an idea of what the real problem is. So why do you think that the factory farms are getting a pass, not only by the state, by the general public.
[15:26] Well, there’s a lot of reasons tied up in that. You know, we have a culture that has been brought up and brainwashed on things ought to be convenient and cheap as possible. And don’t think about the problems associated with it. Just consume and shut up. So, and what that allows is all kinds of practices, not just the factory farms, but in many areas, this being one where people aren’t aware, of the conditions these animals are raised in. They’re not aware of the environmental impact. And that’s what we see our big job is being, trying to raise awareness on this. So you’ve got that going on. It’s, we have a system that has been designed.
[16:27] By the corporations that profit on it. And that’s true of the healthcare system and transportation and everything else, but for food and agriculture, the same thing. Now we’ve industrialized agriculture to maximize the profits for a smaller and smaller number of operators. Know, the mom and pop factory farms that you referred to earlier, are almost out of existence. And, you know, it’s been 30 years or more since the stated purpose of the Federal Department of Agriculture was as explained by a former Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, get big or get out. And that was not just rhetoric, you know, the federal government, Uh, the land grant colleges like OSU and MSU started putting lots of money into subsidizing these kinds of operations, into doing the research required. Uh, that’s where the land grant colleges came in to figure out how to make this kind of a system work.
[17:33] And so it was a political decisions driven by, uh, corporate interests, uh, which came up with this system that we have. And it was sold to the public because this is gonna keep the cost of your food down. It’s going to be convenient and it’ll be endless supply.
[17:58] So, you know, when you just take things at face value as they’re announced on the news and through advertisements, you know, that’s the kind of trap that you fall into. And it won’t change. You know, the EPA isn’t going to make this change. What’s going to make a change is enough people getting pissed off that these animals are being held in barbaric conditions and they’re ruining the lake at the same time. And that’s what’s going to make things change. The thing is, we don’t have to do it this way. That’s the tragedy of this whole thing. You know, I’ve been in discussions where there’s Farm Bureau representatives there, and they always want to make it sound like, well, if you folks have your way, we’re going to all starve to death in the dark. Well, you know, that’s, frankly, that’s bullshit, because, we didn’t have a single one of these factory farms in our watershed before the mid-90s.
[18:55] So, and you know, you and I and a number of our listeners are old enough to remember those days and I’ll bet you they do not have a memory of going to Kroger’s and having to wait in line for the next shipment of milk or hamburgers or pork chops. We were able to take care of the consumer demand without this model of agriculture. We got it because it was going to make a few people a lot of money. And that’s what we’re suffering with now. But it’s not because we’re going to not have enough food if we go back to farming the way we used to. And that kind of farming can be subsidized. You know, the smaller scale, sustainable farming that doesn’t destroy the environment, that treats animals more humanely, we can subsidize that. We’re subsidizing the bad stuff now. And we can subsidize that better model, be able to feed ourselves and do better by the environment and the animals too.
[19:55] And what can somebody do about it? If they heard what you’re talking about and they agree with you and they’re rightly upset about it, what can somebody do about it? Well, there’s a number of things people can do and they range from what can I do as an individual, with a maybe a small individual impact on the system or what can I do politically that hopefully will have a bigger impact. So they arrange everything from quick going to the drive-in and Chick-fil-A, the McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A drive-thrus. You know, 100% of that beef and chicken comes from these kinds of barbaric institutions. You don’t scale up to serve a gazillion hamburgers and Chick-fil-A sandwiches, you know, and have anything but these factory farms. That’s been part of the whole industrialization of the food supply and industrialization of the way we eat. And so that’s one thing people can do. Think about what’s on the end of your fork, where did it come from? What might you do to do that better? There’s places where you can get milk and meat and eggs. My wife and I go to the farmer’s market. We get all our eggs there. We get our milk from similar places.
[21:25] We eat very little meat. I get a chicken every couple of months, you know, and we’re healthy and, you know, we’re making it through life. So that’s on the individual level.
[21:37] On the broader social and political level, people are invited to go to our website, which is LakeErieAdvocates.org.
[21:48] Go to that website and it’ll have tons of information in there. We put out all our news releases on there. And if you go to the homepage and scroll down a ways, there’s a section that says, let’s all go to the movies. And you can click on that and view some of these movies that have been taken by undercover workers at these factory farms that show what’s really going on. And if you scroll down further on the homepage, down towards the bottom, there’s our logo. And it says, Third Battle for Lake Erie. And if you click on that logo, that Third Battle for Lake Erie, it’ll take you directly to the slideshow presentation that we give to the public. So you can see that for your own information. And hopefully, we rely on people getting the word to people they know with different organizations. Now we came out to the Northwest Ohio Humanists, as you know, and did this presentation. And we like to get out as many places as possible. We’re going to a number of high schools and so forth. So, you know, help us spread the word, get this information out there. We have postcards that we send to elected officials. Not that we’re waiting for any leadership from them, but you know, that’s something we can do. So we do it.
[23:12] So, you know, there’s a number of things people can do.
[23:26] If you don’t mind, I want to kind of change gears a little bit. And you know, you’ve been an environmental and peace activist for years. Do you have any thoughts about the train derailment that we saw in East Palatine and other places? Should we all be worried since Toledo is a major rail hub? Well, you know, those same shipments, I mean, Lord knows that one in East Palestine, I don’t know where it was going or where it was coming from, but but Toledo is a big rail center, and the towns right around Toledo like Walbridge and Rossford and so forth, a whole lot of passenger, not passenger unfortunately, but freight traffic goes through our area. And there are shipments of those kinds of chemicals dozens of times every day. So yeah, I mean, in one sense, it’s worrisome.
[24:24] Going off on a tangent for just a minute, I was reading an article about that train derailment in East Palestine, and part of the story included a photo of a citizen of that town, standing near stacks and stacks of bottled water. And I just thought, wow, how crazy is this? One of the worst toxic chemicals that got released was polyvinyl chloride, and that’s the main ingredient in plastic. And so we’ve got this demand for plastic everything. Well, how are you going to do that? You’ve got to ship it on rail cars in huge quantities. Because we keep using more and more plastic. And you’re going to have these kinds of accidents, unfortunately. Now, there are people who are going after the Federal Regulatory Agency and the railroad for not keeping up with the safety technology that they could be using.
[25:28] There’s a braking system that has been around for quite a while that the industry refuses to use because it costs more. President Obama mandated they start using these and President Trump got in and said, no, you don’t have to. And so, you know, we’ve got, we’ve ignored so much of our infrastructure, including rail, and that doesn’t even begin to get into the fact that we.
[25:55] Are killing ourselves and the planet with the transportation system we have for people with with the expressways instead of having a rail system that really works. So, it’s part of the same system. We have a capitalist system and it runs on figuring out ways, to make the most money for a small number of people. And when that is the system that you have, these are the consequences. These are the systems that creates. You get healthcare systems that we have, and agricultural systems, transportation. So, you know, anybody that’s been awake and alive for very long sees this stuff all the time. And it’s another indication of the change that we need. I also wanted to talk about here a little bit. You ran for mayor a couple of times. One of the times you ran for mayor was back in the nineties and Cardi Finkbeiner was your opponent, and he beat you by 600 votes. Yeah, yeah, right, it should be 286 and 700, but who’s counting? And back then, Cardi ran on a platform of reducing crime.
[27:08] And now he has returned and he’s back promoting some of the same ideas that he said worked for him as mayor in the 90s. Since you were involved with city government back in the 90s, did any of those ideas really reduce crime in Toledo? Like removing graffiti, having gang members remove graffiti and the block watches? Well, all of those things are nice to do. You know, how much effect they have, I don’t think anybody can tell you. Violent crime, and that’s what we’re mostly, we’re talking about then and talking about now, violent crime goes up and down, up and down. And sociologists and people have been trying to figure out what causes this. And it generally follows a national trend. You know, when Toledo’s murder rate was going down, up until the last couple of years here, when that was on the way down, that was happening all over the country. So, you know, what are the reasons? You know, sociologists come up with all kinds of reasons and, you know, there’s volumes that have been written on this. People can check it out for themselves. But my impression is that, yeah, you gotta have a good police force. Block watches certainly can’t hurt.
[28:30] Doing any of these other sorts of things are all worth trying and they’re worth doing. You know, I mean, who wouldn’t want the graffiti removed off their garage wall? You know, I mean, you can’t argue with them, but you know, if you’re doing these because you’re saying that you’re going to reduce violent crime, well, you better be able to show it. And I don’t see where anybody has been able to show that. Now, I’m not a real student on this, but I’ve done some reading on it. And what I found is that Massachusetts has got the toughest gun laws in the country. And they’ve also got the lowest murder rate in the country. Now, maybe they also have great block watch programs. I don’t know, but you’ve got a country where it’s a wash in guns. They’re easy to get legally or illegally.
[29:27] We’ve got a violent culture. I mean, let’s face it, you know, everything from the entertainment we watch to our national story of, our creation story, you know, how we came to these shores and subdued the savages and won the Wild West, and on and on and on. And, you know, I enlisted in the military right out of high school during the Vietnam War because I had a handful of John Wayne movies, like most of the kids in those days. So, we’ve got a violent culture. And then you take a look at the fact that.
[30:05] People who, you know, child psychologists and people who know how to raise children will tell you, and regular old parents will tell you from their experience, that children do what they see. They follow examples more than they follow what you tell them. And the example we set in this country is the majority of our national treasury is spent every year on death. It’s spent on weaponry. We export more weapons than any other country in the world. We’ve invaded more countries than any other country in the world. And it just goes on and on. So you have this cultural aspect of this that you got to consider and how can you address, that? Well, it takes a change in culture and that is a long and slow process, particularly when So many corporations are making money off the way it is.
[31:03] Yeah, I the other day, there was a news conference that they showed on one of the TV news channels here in Toledo, where they are announcing the city of Toledo is announcing working with a group that will consult about reducing crime. And Mayor Mayor Wade Katchakabage practically seethed and couldn’t bring himself to say, defund the police. Which claimed his initiative wasn’t about that. But do you think addressing the social economic aspects of crime and how some of it comes from desperation is in fact what people mean when they say defunding the cops, you know, changing, you know, shifting some of that money that we spend to militarize our cops to dealing with the social economic aspects of crime? Absolutely. You know, know, um, you know, particularly when it comes to cities, I mean, in a federal government, they borrow money till the cows come home. So, you know, they, they can always just turn the spigot on and add to the national debt. Um, cities can’t do that. States can’t do that. And so we have a situation where we, we just never have the resources necessary to do an adequate job. So we’re always trying to patch things together when it comes to, trying to take care of the social economic conditions.
[32:28] You know, we always manage to find money for the military and we always find money for the police.
[32:35] But, you know, the other stuff that deals with the problems that the conditions where we know crime grows in, dealing with those things cost money. People much smarter than me have said that, When you invest in the front end, even if you’re just looking at dollars spent, that’s a cheaper way of dealing with the problem and reducing crime than dealing with it in the backend with prisons and courts and cops. So, but how do you make that shift? How do you, um, get people to support the idea that we really need to apply the bulk of our resources towards improving conditions. You know, if the economy was such that we had anybody Anybody who needed a job at good pay could get it.
[33:34] We had the educational systems up where they need to be. We had health care such that you don’t have to maintain a job that you hate just to get health benefits. All of these things are part of societies that have much lower violent crime rates than we do. You look at the countries of Western Europe, for example. They all have much, much lower rates of violent crime. They’ve got tougher gun laws than we do, that’s one thing, but they also invest in life. They invest in human beings’ lives. You get decent amounts of vacation, child care, if you’re working, on and on and on. And it gives people a sense of security.
[34:26] And knowing that they’re connected with each other and that they’re part of a society that is not leaving people behind. And you grow up in this culture and you have a different attitude than we have here where you got more of the dog eat dog approach. You know, so yeah, some of the answer is better policing and having the best technology and the best training and that sort of thing. But we’re not going to get out of these kinds of problems given what we are used to living in, which is this kind of toxic soup of violence from the national level on down. I mean, look at the, you know, look at the factory farms, you know, I mean, any, that’s why I talk about, think about what’s on the end of your fork. I mean, nothing gets on the end of your fork unless it’s pasta or a…
[35:28] Corn casserole, nothing gets on the end of your fork unless it’s had its throat slit. You know, but how those animals are raised and how they’re killed and processed, there are huge, huge differences. And what we have now is a system that is barbaric. And it dehumanizes the people that work in it. And that’s how these sorts of of undercover videos are made with these unbelievable conditions and behavior from the people that work there is because you just get dehumanized.
[36:06] I’ve compared it to being in the military. Now you can’t go kill somebody, unless you think of them as less than human. And you can’t do that unless you yourself have been dehumanized to a certain level. And that’s exactly what basic training does for everybody that’s in the military. I mean, you take these people, you throw them together, you shave all their heads, dress them in the same dumpy uniform so nobody has any individuality, and you run them through a program that deprives them of sleep and dehumanizes the enemy and dehumanizes themselves. And wow, that’s how you get people to be able to kill each other. And you’re working in a factory farm and you see these undercover videos, you can see the behaviors that people have towards these animals. And it just reminds me of the same thing. They’re just dehumidized. Okay, and as we wrap up this interview today, if you want, I know you’ve talked about the factory farms again. If there’s anything that you want to leave us with, that you want us to know, you can even promote your group again, have at it. Okay, well, I’d like to go back to that. That’s the main reason you asked me on. And really urge people to go to lakeareaadvocates.org.
[37:34] That’s simply our name.org. And check out their website. We put a lot of time into maintaining it and we hope it’s attractive, but if nothing else, we know there’s a lot of good information there. So check it out and get involved and, you know, figure out some group that you belong to or somebody in your family belongs to that would like to have us come in and do a program, and you can contact us through the website. Thank you, Mike. And I really do appreciate your time today, and good luck in your future endeavors. Well, thank you very much, Doug, and thank you for the opportunity. Thank you for listening. For more information about the topics in this episode, please visit the episode page at glasscityhumanist.show. Glass City Humanist is an outreach of the Secular Humanists of Western Lake Erie. Surely can be reached at humanistswle.org. Glass City Humanist is hosted, written, and produced by Douglas Berger, and he’s solely responsible for the content. Our theme music is Glass City Jam, composed using the Amplify Studio. See you next time!
Transcript is machine generated, lightly edited, and approximate to what was recorded. If you would like perfect transcripts, please donate to the show.
Written, produced, and edited by Douglas Berger and he is entirely responsible for the content. Incidental voice overs by Shawn Meagley
The GCH theme is “Glass City Jam” composed using Ampify Studio
This episode by Glass City Humanist is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.