By LAUREN ETTER
WINCHESTER, Ind.—Like many of his neighbors, farmer Tony Goltstein has to deal with the aftermath of the dairy bubble.
But besides his mounting financial troubles, Mr. Goltstein also must contend with bubbles the size of small houses that have sprouted from the pool of manure at his Union Go Dairy Farm. Some are 20 feet tall, inflated with the gas released by 21 million gallons of decomposing cow manure.
But he has a plan. It requires a gas mask, a small boat and a Swiss Army knife.
The saga of Mr. Goltstein’s bubbles, which are big enough to be seen in satellite photos, began about seven years ago and traces the recent boom and bust of U.S. dairy farmers.
Mr. Goltstein, 43 years old, had moved his wife and their three children from the Netherlands to Winchester, population 4,600, about 90 miles east of Indianapolis. They planned to build a dairy farm with 1,650 cows on 180 acres.
He had installed a black plastic liner to keep the manure from seeping into the ground during the flush days of the dairy business, when prices and demand were growing.
The plastic liner has since detached from the floor of the stinky, open-air pool, and Mr. Goltstein says he can’t afford to repair the liner properly. But he says he’s game to pop the bubbles before the manure pool overflows and causes an even bigger stink.
His neighbors aren’t happy with the plan.
“If that thing back there blows, God help us all for miles,” said Allen Hutchison, whose corn and soybean farm is next door. He and other neighbors worry that puncturing the bubbles could cause an explosion of manure and toxic gases.
Not to worry, said Mr. Goltstein as he stood at the edge of the manure pit, puffing on a cigarette and gazing at the bubbles glistening in the sun. “I have no fear popping them.”
When the neighboring Hutchison family first learned the Goltsteins were planning a dairy farm right next door, they worried the operation’s manure pool would foul the air or groundwater. Mr. Hutchison petitioned state environmental officials to deny the Goltsteins an operating permit.
It’s normal in farm country to see vast brown pools filled with manure slurry from dairy cows or hogs. These lagoons, as they’re commonly called, are supposed to safely store animal waste until the manure is sprayed on fields as fertilizer. Federal and state laws govern how the pools are maintained.
Some struggling farmers in the recession have neglected lagoon maintenance while others have abandoned their farms altogether, leaving states to clean up the mess.
Barbara Sha Cox, who has a farm six miles from the Goltstein farm, recently wrote to Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, asking him to support rules that would require farmers to put up money so the state wouldn’t be liable if a lagoon spilled manure or was abandoned. A spokeswoman for Mr. Daniels said, “on the rare occasions that there has been a need for a cleanup, the state has the ability and does seek cost recovery and that approach is working.”
The Goltsteins agreed to install a plastic liner and received their permit. These liners often are used in landfills, but Mr. Goltstein said his was among the first to be used on an Indiana farm. It cost $150,000.
The first small bubbles began poking up in the fall of 2006. “I thought, ‘This doesn’t look right,’ ” he said.
In July 2008, about the time milk prices plummeted amid weak global demand, one of the bubbles ripped open and revealed solid matter inside. A state environmental inspector visited, and the state fined Mr. Goltstein $2,125 for failing to properly maintain the lagoon.
The Goltsteins filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last month; their bank began foreclosure proceedings. Mr. Goltstein said repairing or replacing the lagoon liner could cost him more than $200,000—money, he said, he doesn’t have.
Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management said there was no sign that manure from Mr. Goltstein’s lagoon was contaminating the local groundwater.
But Mr. Goltstein said he loses sleep worrying that his lagoon will overflow. Warmer weather appears to have made the bubbles grow, he said, and the pool has been inching higher. To prevent a spill, the Goltsteins have been paying to have manure pumped into tanker trucks and dumped at another farm.
This month, Mr. Goltstein asked state regulators to let him pop the bubbles. He said he and his 19-year-old son would slice them open with a knife from a paddleboat.
Bruce Palin, assistant commissioner for the office of land quality at the state environmental agency, said officials were considering the idea. But, he added, “not knowing how much volume of gas is there and how much pressure is on it, we’re concerned with just cutting a hole.”
Last year, a hog farmer in Hayfield, Minn., was launched 40 feet into the air in an explosion caused by methane gas from a manure pit on his farm. He sustained burns and singed hair.
Mr. Goltstein’s attorney, Glenn D. Bowman, acknowledged that the potential existed for an explosion: “We’re aware of that sort of common physics issue,” he said.
If and when the bubbles are deflated, state officials said, they will be there to keep watch.
That’s little consolation to many of Mr. Goltstein’s neighbors.
“If they don’t do it right...” Mr. Hutchison said, shaking his head as his voice trailed off.
Mr. Palin, the state official, said, “Obviously you don’t want to be smoking a cigarette when you open this thing up.”