Forced into the spotlight, Lynn Henning decided to take action and seek to protect her community from millions of tons of toxic sludge and fumes that had caused terrible illnesses and diseases. The middle aged woman educated herself and others about regulatory practices and water sampling and eventually convinced state regulators to increase enforcement of environmental laws.
Born and raised on a rural farm in Michigan, Lynn Henning’s life had been humble and average like the four generations of rural farmers before her. When Lynn married her husband they decided to continue the family business of farming grain and vegetables on their family’s 300 acre farm.
It wasn’t until Lynn was 42 years old that she began to make efforts that would lead her to complete heroic acts. Unknown to herself and the community, the beautiful fields they walked through each day were being polluted through industrialized livestock practices known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). In the late 1990’s corporation run CAFO’s began springing up around the nation and around Lynn’s county. Though locals originally disliked the operations because they often replaced the traditional family farms, they also began to appreciate the steady income made available by the large operations.
Lynn Henning, a corn and soybean farmer, originally remained neutral about the CAFOs (12 of which resided within 10 miles of her family farm). Each CAFO can house hundreds of thousands of livestock, encaged shoulder to shoulder and fed a mixture of grains, growth hormones and antibiotics in order to consistently produce millions of pounds low cost meat. Unknown to Lynn, the worst part about the livestock factories wasn’t their inhumane practices, but their methods of waste management.
With tens of thousands of cattle eating and not allowed to move about, the excrement production is equivalent to a city of 70,000 people. After cleaning the stalls, the CAFOs store the untreated liquid mixture of feces, urine, chemical cleaners, blood, and antibiotic waste in large open ponds. The toxic brew seeps into the groundwater supply until it can be sprayed as “fertilizer” on leased farmlands. When rain isn’t transporting the nauseous mixture into waterways and lakes, it rises into the air as fumes of deadly ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and methane.
“There are 22 people sick within a mile radius of the factory farm near my home. My in-laws have hydrogen sulfide poisoning.”
The change happened shortly after Lynn’s 80 year old parents were diagnosed with hydrogen sulfide poisoning because their family farm was now near a CAFO. When a nearby recreational lake reeked of animal waste, she began asking questions to authorities about the lack of air and water regulation. She found out that most of the environmental laws were written when small family farms were the most common and the waste production quantities were considerably less.
Lynn was pushed into the spotlight in the year 2000 when one nearby CAFO was reported for illegally discharging waste. The CAFO mistakenly blamed the Hennings as being the whistleblowers. Lynn, seizing the opportunity, began to do exactly what she had been blamed for doing. She rallied her neighbors and others who had personally suffered from the toxins to form the Environmentally Concerned Citizens of Central Michigan (ECCSCM). The group worked in two ways. The first was to track CAFO practices within 150 mile radius and take water samples from the region’s waterways. The second was to push state and federal agencies to increase regulation and protection.
After learning about the causes of pollution in the waterways, Lynn Henning began volunteering as a Water Sentinel with the Sierra Club. Her duties with the Sierra Club included taking water samples as well as using satellite imagery and GPS coordinates to document the pollution and its damage. In some places they found pollution and e-coli to be nearly 2,000 times the state’s maximum limits.
“When they’re spraying waste, the smell is so bad you can’t open your windows or sit outside.”
The data Lynn and the other volunteers collected allowed the Michigan regulators to levy hundreds of citations against CAFOs who were violating the few environmental laws the existed at the time. Lynn then provided the state with monitoring tools and taught the state regulators the methods and techniques to document pollution.
Because of her bold activism, Lynn was faced with intimidation techniques, harassment and social ostracism. Her truck has been followed and run off the road as she commutes around the counties collecting samples and documenting pollution. Carcasses of dead animals have been left on her doorstep, car and in her now blown-up mailbox. The pastor at her church asked her to stop attending after another member of the congregation complained about her activism, and neighbors who are employed by CAFOs have cut communication with the Henning family.
After Lynn’s granddaughter’s bedroom window was shot one night she nearly stopped her efforts. But with deep consideration she went back to work in order to “set a good example” and to save the lives of many who are being poisoned by the pollution.
A first for Michigan environmental protection happened eight years later in 2008 when the regulators denied a permit to a proposed CAFO facility. Up until then, CAFO facilities were being constructed without consideration of their environmental degradation.
Lynn Henning continues her environmental efforts to this day, driving around and observing the 150 mile area multiple times a week. She has also begun traveling around the United States speaking for tighter regulation and strict enforcement of environmental laws. Her techniques are now being used by various regulatory organizations. We recognize her as a hero for her persistent bravery and incredible effort to save her community from pollution.
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