FARM POLLUTION IS KILLING
MILLIONS OF FISH
Manure spills and intentional manure dumping atfactory farms in 10 states killed 13 million fish in the late 1990s, according to a new report by acoalition of environmental groups. The report, produced by NRDC (Natural Resources DefenseCouncil), the Clean Water Network and the Izaak Walton League, documents more than 1,000manure spills and 200 fish kills from 1995 through 1998. The report surveyed data from Illinois,Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Washington andWisconsin.
"Lagoon overflows and over-application of manure at factory farms are polluting our lakes andrivers, killing our fish and wildlife, and threatening public health," says Nancy Stoner, director ofNRDC's Clean Water Project. "The scope and severity of these pollution problems underscorethe need for stronger federal and state regulation."
The Environmental Protection Agency is developing new federal standards for controllingpollution from factory farms (also called feedlots) under a consent decree with NRDC, whichwants tighter regulations. "We urge EPA to close the loopholes that allow factory farms to turnour rivers and lakes into manure sewers," says report co-author Merritt Frey of the Clean WaterNetwork. "It's time to bring this industry into the 21st century and protect Americans fromfeedlot pollution."
The new report, titled "Spills and Kills," is the most complete analysis to date of feedlot waterpollution problems. It documents improper land application of manure, spills and leaks fromimmense manure lagoons, equipment failures, and intentional manure dumping. Theseincidents, which deplete the oxygen in waterways, have led to massive fish kills in the 10states surveyed by the report. For example, from 1995 to 1998, 250 manure spills in the fiveMidwest states bordering the upper Mississippi River killed more than 3.3 million fish. Midwestmanure spills and factory farm runoff also contribute significantly to the "dead zone" in the Gulfof Mexico.
"We collected and analyzed all the reliable information we could find," explains Frey, "but giventhere is no national tracking system for manure spills or fish kills, our data represents only afraction of the actual number. We need a national tracking system to notify the public aboutpollution threats and to hold polluters accountable."
Twenty-eight years after enactment of the Clean Water Act, forty percent of our nation’s rivers,lakes, and coastal waters are considered unfit for fishing, swimming, drinking or aquatic life.The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified agricultural pollution as the primarycause of pollution in the nation’s impaired rivers and lakes.1 Pollution from livestock feedlots ispart of the agricultural water pollution problem. For example, at least 10 percent of the nation’spolluted river miles are impaired by pollution from feedlots.2
Although our water resources are degraded by pollution from many sources – such as sewagetreatment plants, urban runoff, agriculture generally, industries, mines, and more – this reportfocuses on pollution problems caused by animal agriculture. To illustrate the scale of thepollution problem, ten states were surveyed for pollution incidents between 1995 and 1998related to livestock facilities. Where available, fish kill data – a clear indicator of water qualitydegradation – were also gathered.
Spills and dumping of manure and other waste products occurred over one thousand times at feedlots in the ten surveyed states between 1995 and 1998. Over 13 million fish were killed in more than two hundred of the spills.
The pollution problems at feedlots continue unabated. This report documents dozens of spillsand other problems in the year and a half since our reporting period ended. When all the data isin, there will likely be hundreds, not dozens, to report.
During the past three decades, the Clean Water Act helped reduce water pollution from mostpoint sources of pollution such as industrial and municipal sources. However, large-scaleconfined animal feeding operations (feedlots), also considered a point source of pollution in theAct, have escaped regulation.
Feedlot pollution problems are not caused by the production of more animals but rather by theconcentration of those animals on a relatively small amount of land. Concentrated numbers ofanimals causes a concentration of manure and urine, which often leads to concentratedamounts of pollutants seeping through the soil and into our water.
During the past 15 years the number of hog farms in the U.S. dropped from 600,000 to 157,000,yet the nation’s hog inventory remains almost the same.3 In 1999, the U.S. Department ofAgriculture reported that only two percent of the hog operations in the country produce over 46percent of the total hog population.4 From 1998 to 1999, the number of operations with fewerthan 2,000 head of swine decreased, while the operations with greater than 2,000 headincreased.5 In the poultry industry, only ten companies produce more than 90 percent of thenation’s poultry.6
Today’s large livestock facilities operate more like animal factories than animal farms.Thousands, and in some cases millions, of hogs and hundreds of thousands of chickens areraised in these facilities. A single factory farm can generate the waste equivalent of a town orcity. However, while towns are required to build sewage treatment plants for human waste,similar volumes of waste produced by livestock go untreated.
Nutrients in manure and urine, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, contaminate our water. Whenpresent in high concentrations in water, these nutrients increase algal growth, cause fish kills,threaten public health and jeopardize the enjoyment of recreational activities. Bursting andoverflowing manure lagoons – often as big as several football fields – spill manure and urine intorivers, lakes and coastal waters. The over-application of animal waste onto land alsocontributes to water pollution because the manure and wastewater run off of fields and into ourwaterways. For example, nutrients from animal waste contribute to an hypoxic "dead zone" inthe Gulf of Mexico – approximately 7,000 square miles that cannot support most aquatic life
In addition, the high levels of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide gases released into the air frommanure lagoons and the aerial spraying of urine and manure onto the land threaten humanhealth. A recent study showed that people living near hog operations reported increasedoccurrences of headaches, runny nose, sore throat, excessive coughing, diarrhea and burningeyes when compared with people living in other areas.7
Large scale feedlots – or factory farms – have the proven potential to cause huge environmentaldisasters because of the massive amount of waste they store and dispose of. Smaller livestockfacilities can and do cause water pollution too, but their smaller size tends to pose less risk ofcatastrophic damage. Many feedlot facilities of any size clustered together in one area can alsothreaten our rivers, lakes and streams when their manure management systems fail.
Feedlot size is one variable in how feedlots affect the environment and local communities. It isalso a key variable in how problems at feedlots are addressed. The Clean Water Act requirespollution control permits for large-scale facilities, but due to a lack of enforcement andloopholes in the current requirements, most large feedlots still do not have permits. Smallerfeedlots are only regulated if they are designated as a pollution problem. This report focuses onregulatory solutions for the large-scale feedlots – or factory farms – that have a greater potentialto damage our environment, and recommends specific policy solutions for environmentalproblems caused by small and large feedlots. Alternatives to current livestock productionsystems are presented on page 63.
The root of the pollution problem caused by large confined livestock facilities is easy tounderstand: too many animals – and too much manure – concentrated on too little land.Contributing unnecessarily to this problem is the use of woefully inadequate "technologies" formanure management. Lax regulatory enforcement also contributes to a pollution problem thatis an environmental and public health crisis in this country.
Solutions to large feedlot pollution problems must address the concentration of animals andmanure, inadequate manure management technology, and enforcement of the Clean WaterAct. The manure spills, illegal dumping, the over-application of manure, and other violationsseen at feedlots illustrate four basic tenets for solving the feedlot pollution problem:
Large feedlots – or factory farms – are industrial facilities and should be regulated as such. The Clean Water Act identified factory farms as industrial facilities in need of pollution control permits 28 years ago – it is time to enforce the law. Lagoons and other "technologies" used at factory farms are not working and threaten public health, wildlife, and the quality of our rivers, lakes and coastal waters. Technology standards for factory farms have not been changed since 1976. It is time to update the technology standards to eliminate the risk of water and air pollution. Sustainable methods of raising livestock exist and should be promoted through policy programs. These methods reduce the concentration of animals and utilize manure as a valuable fertilizer applied to the land in a safe manner. These alternative methods rely on systems that keep animal waste drier – limiting problems with spills, runoff, and air pollution. Small feedlots that cause pollution problems must be encouraged to improve their management practices by using voluntary programs to upgrade outdated systems and focus on curtailing runoff into nearby streams and lakes. Technical assistance and other resources are available to assist small feedlot owners.
Written by: Natural Resources Defense Council
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