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From Homeland to Wasteland
Home The News From Homeland to Wasteland

In the latest issue of All Animals magazine, author David Kirby describes the health and environmental problems caused by concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and the fight against industrial animal production in rural America

All Animals magazine, July/August 2010

Editor's note: David Kirby's Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment was published in March by St. Martin's Press. He also wrote the award-winning New York Times bestseller Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic—A Medical Controversy (St. Martin's Press, 2005). A journalist for more than 15 years, he has appeared on numerous television and radio programs and is a contributor to The Huffington Post.

by David Kirby

Prologue

They've been threatened with lawsuits, and with their lives. They've been shunned at church meetings and labeled anti-farm terrorists by Big Ag operators. But they never, ever give up.

For those fighting the encroachment of industrial animal production into the bucolic corners of heartland America, surrender is unthinkable. They care too deeply about the fate and well-being of rural communities, natural habitats, water and air quality, human health, and animal welfare to let corporate agriculture's share-cropping animal factories spread across the landscape without a fight, no matter how unpleasant things get.

My book Animal Factory details many of the health and environmental risks of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), risks that I came to learn about firsthand in my two years of traveling around 20 states where CAFOs are causing problems.

In some cases, it seems, CAFOs can kill.

I first heard about the hazards of factory farming from Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whom I got to know through my writing on autism. Kennedy described a tragic situation in a small town called Prairie Grove, tucked in the hilly country of the poultry-packed "Chicken Belt" of Northwest Arkansas. Giant chicken companies had fed their birds arsenic—a growth promoter and intestinal disease treatment—and local farmers had then spread arsenic-laced chicken litter as fertilizer on many of the fields surrounding Prairie Grove.

After visiting the quiet, shady town, I realized how desperate things are there. Arsenic traced to chicken feed has been found in the air filters of local homes. Dozens of cancer cases, including at least 20 in children, have savaged Prairie Grove. Three 14-year-old boys came down with the same extremely rare form of testicular cancer.

I myself succumbed to much milder symptoms of CAFO pollution. After spending time near the dry, dusty megadairies of Washington and California, and breathing in copious amounts of pulverized cattle feces mixed with pathogens and drugs, I would develop a mild fever, achy joints, a phlegmatic hack, and a raspy throat. Megadairy neighbors call it "manure flu." When I got home from these trips, I would open my suitcase to a massive whiff of cow poop that I brought home with me, enmeshed in my clothes.

So when people I interviewed told me that CAFOs make them sick, I could commiserate. My experiences helped me to relate directly to the rural activists I profiled in my book—people who are defending communities against factory farming interests across the country, from the megadairies in Washington State to the jam-packed "hog belt" of North Carolina.

Mostly farmers and fishermen from conservative backgrounds, they are ordinary Americans driven to extraordinary measures. The book leaves them in the summer of 2009. What follows is a brief update on three of the activists I profiled—and how their struggles continue long after the last page is turned.


The Dark Side of Dairy

Contaminated wells, worthless homes

Helen Reddout became a full-fledged CAFO activist one summer evening in 1996, when her farmhouse was invaded by the choking stench of dairy cow effluence.

"It was like a thousand gallons of fermented sewage had been poured on my bed," she remembers.

The fertile Lower Yakima Valley, Reddout's home since the 1950s, had been overrun recently by dairy CAFOs that were driving out the small, pasture-based dairies that had dotted the area.

Much of that waste is stored in giant "lagoons" and then sprayed on cropland. But there's far more manure than the land can absorb. Overapplication of nitrogen and phosphorous contaminates the Yakima River, the Valley's lifeblood, as well as aquifers that supply water to thousands of homes.

In 1998, Reddout and her group Community Association for Restoration of the Environment (CARE) sued several local megadairies for violating the Clean Water Act. The one defendant that did not settle was excoriated by a federal judge and ordered to pay historic sums in fines and legal fees. All of the settlement money from the other defendants went to fund well-water testing around the Valley.

In Animal Factory, I detail how residents' well water had indeed been contaminated with dangerously high levels of nitrates—a known cause of diabetes, spontaneous abortions, blue-baby syndrome, and other health issues. The main source is probably manure.

To find out for sure, EPA officials took some 1,000 samples, and final results will be known this summer. The first round of testing found that one in five samples contained a level of nitrates over the safety limit of 10 parts per million; Reddout's well was contaminated at 10.7 parts per million. Affected households were ordered to stop drinking well water, and some people were told to avoid skin contact as well.

"I had to put six Kleenexes over my mouth, it smelled so bad, and we were four miles away!"

CARE's alliance also has found that the megadairies are dumping cow waste and carcasses for composting on Indian lands. The group is working with Yakima Nation leaders on banning the practices.

"They need it. One man said they were they throwing dozens of dead animals on a pile," Reddout says. "Dogs were carrying hides, skulls, and feet into his yard. His grandchildren were afraid to go outside."

Reddout's work has taken her beyond the scrubby hills of her beloved valley, most recently to Maricopa, Ariz., where a massive beef operation is making life miserable for many.

"I had to put six Kleenexes over my mouth, it smelled so bad, and we were four miles away!" she says. The stench made her throw up. "It was so sickening and so ugly. You could feel the stuff on you."

She met with distraught neighbors in a beautiful new subdivision at a mission-style home that was once worth $300,000. Now it's empty.

"The owner would love to stay here, but she's giving up and moving back to California, paying the bank $50,000 to walk away."

Several families were there, many with preschool-aged children, all on breathing machines, Reddout says, adding that "asthma and autism levels are high in the area."

Back in Yakima, the EPA agreed to molecular testing of the nitrates to determine their origin. "And once that's found, we don't want more studies or education; we want prosecution of the offenders," Reddout warns.

That could happen. EPA officials told her they will make nitrates in Yakima groundwater a "showcase issue" this year, she says. "And that's a great victory for our valley."

"Manure Lady" vs. Giant Crab Bubbles: Welcome to Eastern Indiana

Barbara Cox doesn't know whether to laugh or cry when her grandchildren call her "The Manure Lady." But she has to admit that the nickname fits. Cox has scrambled around her native Indiana for several years, helping people organize against CAFOs, both those that are incoming and those already in place.

In Indiana, where Gov. Mitch Daniels has vowed to double pork production by 2015, it's not always easy work. But that hardly intimidates Cox: She packs a wallop of energy into her 5-foot-3 frame, and her down-home but serious demeanor has led officials to fear and respect the plucky little grandma from eastern Indiana.

Cox is strongly pro-agriculture and, coming from a dairy family, she knows all about cows.

"I learned that you treat the animals right and you will prosper," she says. "We had the most pampered cows in the county: about 80 to 100 of them."

Now, most dairy cows in Indiana are packed into concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), like one that was threatening Winchester, a small dot in the sprawling cornfields east of Muncie. Union-Go Dairy was storing 21 million gallons of waste in a lagoon lined with synthetic material, to prevent seepage.

But methane and other gases got under the lining, creating an archipelago of six big bubbles towering 20 feet into the air like giant brown popovers. In the summer of 2008, Cox warned officials the crap bubbles could explode into flaming balls of methane, damaging buildings, killing livestock, contaminating wells, and coating nearby acres with a greasy film of liquid cow poop.

But it wasn't until a Wall Street Journal reporter showed up and wrote about the "bubble-trouble" lagoon that officials ordered the dairy to do something. Owner Tony Goltstein was threatening to pop the bubbles with a knife. But that could unleash a witch's brew of deadly methane, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide into the surrounding area.

"How are they going to safely burst those bubbles?" Cox demanded of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. "It's a huge concern for our health."

The crap bubbles could explode into flaming balls of methane, contaminating wells and coating nearby acres with a greasy film of liquid cow poop.

Eventually, a team of experts was dispatched to deflate the lagoon, inserting special valves into the bubbles and allowing the dangerous gases to slowly escape.

Cox had warned about CAFO cleanups for years, urging Indiana to require "financial assurance packages" against catastrophic events. But such reform is hard to achieve.

"We've taken bills to the legislature, only to see many stopped or not even heard in committee," she frets. "This year, we had one that would ban spreading manure within two miles of a state park." The biggest spreading weekends are Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Labor Day, she notes, when the parks are most in use.

But even this simple measure faltered, especially after the Indiana Chamber of Commerce opposed it. "I asked them why, when so many small businesses depend upon tourism near the parks," she says. She got no answer.

Another failure "really ticked me off," Cox says: an unsuccessful bill to ensure the proper disposal of dead animals. "When you have a compost pile for dead livestock, it's supposed to be covered and locked, so wild animals don't drag things into people's yards," she says. "And they voted it down—such a simple thing and they made it sound like something at the U.N."

But the Manure Lady won't fade away.

"We have pictures," she warns. "Dead turkeys in creeks, hog heads in backyards, rotting cowhides in gardens. They can't dispute those. They know we worked very hard on this issue."

And they know that Cox and her group, Indiana CAFO Watch, will be back again next time around.

Pigs, Poultry, and Pollution: Col. Dove to the Rescue

Rick Dove did two tours of duty in Vietnam as a U.S. Marine and a lengthy stint as a judge at Camp Lejeune, not far from his home on the Neuse River in New Bern, N.C. But it's his long wars with the hog concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) at home and chicken farms in Maryland that left the biggest mark.

Sometimes his work almost kills him. Dove still feels the effects of a nearly lethal multi-drug-resistant E. coli infection he contracted in 2008, after he fell from a canoe while trying to collect runoff samples at a Perdue poultry contractor on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

As an advocate for the Waterkeeper Alliance, he was leading some investigators up a tidewater ditch to the point where chicken CAFO leachate was likely spilling from a drainage pipe. From there, the waste could easily make its way to the Chesapeake Bay, site of legendary algal blooms and foul fish kills.

Dove knows all about the environmental and health hazards of letting too many nutrients from CAFOs leach into waterways. He left the Marines to become a fisherman on the Neuse, but it didn't last long. In the 1990s, nutrient-rich waters produced a raft of algal blooms, fish kills, and outbreaks of the dreaded protozoa Pfiesteria, which sucks blood from fish by the millions and sickens people on the water. A string of hurricanes in the late '90s swept both pigs and lagoon waste into massive foaming cauldrons of filth and death.

Dove and his colleagues—such as Larry Baldwin, Lower Neuse Riverkeeper in North Carolina, and Kathy Phillips, Assateague Coastkeeper in the Delmarva region—continue monitoring CAFOs. Using evidence gathered from their surveillance flights and risky water testing in ditches, they have filed two new Clean Water Act lawsuits.

One case involves "one of the worst polluters" in North Carolina, Dove says. "It's been problematic going back to the 1990s. We'd find discharges and turn the evidence over to the state, which did little more than apply a slap on the wrist." The state is "not doing what it should to monitor CAFOs and enforce the law," he adds. "So we decided to finally do something, and sent volunteers out and collected sufficient evidence to file a suit."

"The environmental problems associated with industrial hog pollution can no longer be ignored."

In February, Dove, Baldwin, the Neuse River Foundation, and the Waterkeeper Alliance sent a 60-day "notice of intent" to sue a 7,000-hog operation, J.C. Howard's Hill and Taylor Farm, "for illegally discharging harmful pollutants—including fecal coliform and oxygen-depleting nitrogen and phosphorous—into waters of the Neuse River watershed," says a Waterkeeper statement.

As Baldwin notes, with 2 million-plus hogs in the watershed producing the equivalent fecal waste of more than 20 million people, "the environmental problems associated with industrial hog pollution can no longer be ignored." The parties are discussing ways to eliminate the lagoons and sprayfields at this facility without litigation.

In Maryland, Phillips and Waterkeeper filed a similar notice against Alan and Kristin Hudson and their corporate contractor, Perdue Farms, who they allege are contaminating a stream that leads to the Chesapeake. They seek fines, operating changes, five years of monitoring, and legal fees.

Dove and Phillips had flown over the area in search of chicken waste piles near waterways, finding one such spot at the Hudson farm. Downstream from the CAFO—the same location where Dove took his near-fatal tumble—high levels of fecal coliform and E. coli were found on eight different days, according to the complaint.

The defendants have moved to dismiss the case. They say that inspectors determined the pile was human sewage sludge, to be used for fertilizer, and asked the Hudsons to move it back from the ditch. The plaintiffs dispute this account. Pretrial motions are being argued in federal court.

Dove knows that pursuing legal matters can take time. So does waiting for change to come from the top: Congress and the White House. But he's losing patience.

"North Carolina still has 2,600 pig cesspools cooking in the hot sun. If I were Mother Nature, I would say 'Enough is enough.' And now they are predicting much larger hurricane seasons, and these factories and lagoons are still out there, in harm's way."

One of these days, "probably not too far off," Dove warns, "nature is going to deliver one swift kick in the butt to us, and the best that environmentalists will be able to say is, 'I told you so.' And I don't know what that's going to be worth. There'll be no value in that because it'll be too late."

This is part one thru three of a four-part series. The entire article is published in the upcoming July/August issue of All Animals magazine. Part four will be published on Friday, July 16.

 
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First Posting 25-03-2010 06:51:39 RoyRogers59