Pamela “Pam” Williams has lived in York Center, Ohio, for most of her life. For over twenty years, she has worked as a mail carrier in a small Ohio village. She does not have a degree in environmental “anything.” She was never an activist. The mere thought of public speaking filled her with dread. That all changed in November 2007.
Located near the headwaters of Bokes and Mill creeks, York Center is a small town where 3 million chickens, housed in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), share a 3-square-mile-area with an estimated 700 families. Impacts to Bokes Creek flow into the drinking water supply of Columbus, Ohio, before entering the Ohio River. Bokes Creek is listed on Ohio’s 303(d) list of impaired waters. Impacts to Mill Creek affect the water supply for the city of Marysville.
In 2007, residents of York Center were notified of proposed permits to locate an additional seven million chickens, including the largest single-site egg-laying facility in the nation. An estimated 11 million chickens, in total, would be permitted in a 3-mile radius. And suddenly, an activist and a public speaker arose.
Pam worked tirelessly to teach herself about the complicated permitting and complaint reporting processes. She then taught others what she learned. Pam was able to facilitate the successful passage of 12 area resolutions in opposition to the new egg facilities. One unfortunate lesson of the journey has been that the current CAFO permitting procedure in Ohio does not allow for any local government, health officials or local citizens to object to or prevent the permitting of additional CAFOs in any area.
Now, she and others are demanding that the flaws in these procedures be fixed, so that everyone’s voice may be heard and the impact on the local community be considered when the State issues CAFO permits. She has also organized local monitoring efforts, so that she and others will bear witness to the effects of CAFO expansion on precious community water and air resources. Pam and other neighbors have been certified as EPA Level 1 water data collectors, and she has also organized a training session on air monitoring.
Pam’s community is just one of many in Ohio with CAFO concerns, all struggling to make their voices heard. In conferences, hearings and in various lobbying efforts, Pam helped bring together community groups from across Ohio in an effort to combine the voices of similarly concerned citizens. From this loose network, the Ohio Environmental Stewardship Alliance (OESA) was formed. OESA launched a national campaign to prevent the EPA from transferring authority of the CAFO NPDES Permitting Program from the Ohio EPA to the Ohio Department of Agriculture. Over forty state and national organizations have signed on to OESA’s campaign, including: Clean Water Network, Food and Water Watch, Environmental Integrity Project, Natural Resources Defense Council, and The Water Keepers Alliance. This campaign continues.
From that date in November 2007 when she learned of the plans for the new facility, Pam worked tirelessly to have her voice heard and her concerns known, and to inspire other to do the same. Pam’s voice, however, was abruptly squelched on November 21, 2008, when an egg farm sued her claiming, ironically, that her advocacy activities were infringing on their Constitutional rights. Further, the CAFO’s lawsuit asked the federal judge to stop Pam from speaking out and force her to pay attorneys’ fees that, in the end, exceeded $300,000.00. The lawsuit made clear that the stakes were high and at least one CAFO would stop at nothing to silence her. Pam may have been publicly silenced after the lawsuit was filed, but that did not stop her from continuing to gather information, educate herself on the facts and issues, and ask others to speak up in her place. Fearful of the lawsuit, Pam saw numbers decline at her meetings, funds raised for the cause were now diverted for legal expenses and there was a reluctance by others to stand-up and speak out. Things looked bleak. On a date Pam will never forget – November 17, 2009 – after nearly a year of sitting silent for fear of reprisal, the federal judge threw out the egg farm’s entire suit against Pam, finding their claims to be ‘without merit.’
It has been a long, heart-breaking struggle for her and her neighbors. Along the way, the neighborhood has come together in amazing and unforeseen ways, largely united by the cause. But, her efforts and the battle are not over, because the egg farm has appealed, and thus the lawsuit goes on. And, so will Pam.