It's Not Just About Counting Private Profits
December 1, 1999 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
Not long ago, the total amount of livestock in the United States was largely spread out over small, independently-operated farms that dotted the countryside. Today, however, while the total amount of cattle, hogs, and chickens has not increased considerably, these animals are more likely to be confined in factory buildings and feedlots that also concentrate the huge amounts of manure they produce into small areas, which creates a serious, unregulated hazardous waste problem. The scale of some of these operations can be mind- boggling -- one hog factory venture in Utah, for example, will produce more sewage per year than the city of Los Angeles.
A handful of companies own these mass-production systems. Yet livestock factory owners continue to call themselves "farmers." And states that regulate livestock factories as if they were small farmers are having big environmental problems:
• The largest manure spill to date came in 1995 from an eight-acre cesspool in North Carolina that ruptured and spilled 25 million gallons (two times more than the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez) of untreated hog urine and feces into the New River. The spill killed 10 million fish and closed 364,000 acres of coastal wetlands to shellfishing.
• Smaller spills are common and create chronic problems. For example, in 1996 forty spills in Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri killed close to 700,000 fish. In 1997, Indiana feedlots were responsible for 2,391 manure spills. A 100,000-gallon spill in 1998 into Minnesota's Beaver Creek killed close to 700,000 fish.
• In North Carolina, nitrate levels in shallow groundwater below fields sprayed with liquid manure have been measured at rates five times the human health standard; in long-term "sprayfields" the rates have been as high as 13 times the human health standard. In 1996, the Centers for Disease Control linked the high nitrate levels in Indiana well water near feedlots to spontaneous abortions in humans.
• The deadly microbe pfiesteria, which kills fish and causes disorders in people that have been misdiagnosed as Alzheimer's disease, thrives in waterways overloaded with nitrates and phosphorus from sewage and fertilizers. The Chesapeake Bay and North Carolina's Pamlico Sound are infested with pfiesteria: Maryland and Delaware on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake currently produce 620 million chickens each year while North Carolina produces 10 million hogs. Sources: "America's Animal Factories: How States Fail to Prevent Pollution from Livestock Waste," Natural Resources Defense Council and Clean Water Network, 1998; "Meat Factories," Sierra Magazine, January/February 1999.