2.8 Agricultural activities

Many farming activities cause damage. Large livestock operations produce vast amounts of manure which, if not stored and spread properly, can pose significant threats to human health and the surrounding environment. Pathogens from manure can contaminate groundwater and surface water. More than one-third of rural wells tested in several provinces in recent decades have exceeded guidelines for coliform bacteria. One potentially lethal contaminant is E. coli, a baterium found in the intestines of animals; certain strains of E. coli can, in humans, cause severe health problems, such as diarrhea, kidney damage, and even death.

Nutrients from manure can also contaminate both ground and surface water. Nitrogen and phosphorus in runoff can cause algae growth and fish kills.

Manure also pollutes the air, not only with offensive odours but also with poisonous gases such as ammonia and hydrogren sulphide, toxins, fungi that can cause respiratory problems, and potent greenhouse gases.

What to look for on-site

Look for signs of erosion, cloudy discharges along a shoreline, and manure discharges. Rows plowed perpendicular to the water’s edge may allow contaminated water to run directly into a watercourse. In some cases, odour and air contaminants may be an issue.

Contaminants to test for

Liquid discharges: You should have the laboratory measure ammonia, biological oxygen demand, nitrates, nitrites, phosphorus, and total suspended solids. Some heavy metals may be present (arsenic, chromium, iron). In many cases, pesticides and fertilizers may be of concern. Because of the wide variety of pesticides and fertilizers available on the market, you should have the laboratory test for a wide range of organic contaminants, including (but not limited to) carbamates, chlorinated hydrocarbons, and organophosphates.

In the case of animal farming, heavy metals may be present (particularly copper and zinc), as well as fecal coliforms, E. coli, and associated pathogens.

Sediments may be affected by large quantities of contaminated leachate.

Airborne ammonia and nitrogen could be present in livestock-raising areas.

Acts and regulations that may apply

Fisheries Act

Clean Air Act

Ontario Environmental Protection Act

Ontario Water Resources Act

Canadian Environmental Protection Act

Pesticides Act

Be aware that some activities may be protected as “normal farming practices” under right-to-farm laws, such as Ontario’s Farming and Food Production Protection Act. Further reading

Putting Factory Farms to the Test: A Guide to Community-based Water Monitoring (2004), produced by Environmental Defence Canada, provides information on identifying pollution from farms, sampling and testing for phosphates, nitrates, and E. coli, as well as advice on how to interpret results, find assistance, and take action.