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Illinois legislators should do nothing to discourage people from reporting environmental problems on farms, especially factory-farms that have been a bone of contention for years.

An amendment pending in the Senate would require complainants to provide their name and a mailing address before any complaint would be investigated.

That's strange because the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency does the investigating. And it doesn't think there's a problem. In fact, it opposes the legislation. The agency averages only 25-30 anonymous calls a year on farm problems, which include odor, according to IEPA spokeswoman Maggie Carson. The IEPA has five farm specialists, so that means an average of six calls per inspector maximum.

Senators and farm groups pushing this bill have acted on anecdotal evidence, not real numbers.

The issue is overblown and the amendment should be withdrawn.

Identifying yourself gives more credibility to almost any complaint, and we encourage that. But the key should be whether there is a problem, not who reported it - or even why they reported it. That's why the IEPA opposes this amendment, according to Carson. She said IEPA responds to all complaints, and results have shown that some of the anonymous complaints are the most warranted.

Senate Bill 2333 says the complainants' names and addresses will be kept confidential. But that is not comforting if you think you could lose your job by letting the Environmental Protection Agency know your boss has allowed raw sewage to run into a river. Or you want to avoid a neighborhood dispute.

The bill is a precursor to what is happening in Iowa to get people with environmental concerns off the backs of mega-farm operations. A bill was introduced earlier this month in Iowa to punish those who make repeated bogus complaints against farming operations. If someone files three or more complaints without substance in a two-year period, they could wind up paying for government investigative costs plus damages. It's obvious supporters of factory-farms are doing what they can to suppress complaints against their operations.

If there is legislative concern that Illinois' EPA staff is too small to be investigating anonymous complaints, legislators could correct that by hiring more investigators - a real waste based on figures provided by IEPA - or giving county governments the authority to check out complaints and pass information on to the EPA.

The problem is that legislators have never wanted to give local authorities that kind of power over agriculture, mega-farms in particular, because they know these farms wouldn't sprout up so easily. The contention has been that local authorities don't have the expertise to judge some of the large farming operations. That's hogwash. Maybe local people don't have the expertise on mega-farm siting regulations, but there are persons just as capable as bureaucrats in the Department of Agriculture to help counties. And for the complaints that follow construction of these factory operations, it doesn't take an expert to know manure running into a creek is a pollution problem.


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