Energy & Environment

The Livestock Time Bomb

Rural residents in several states are rebelling against large dairies, swine farms, poultry operations and egg producers for creating environmental threats.
by | January 2000

Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

Like anyone else, government environmental regulators get testy when they have to clean up somebody else's mess.

Certainly, North Carolina's Environment, Health and Natural Resources officials couldn't be blamed for feeling that way last fall after Hurricanes Dennis and Floyd flooded the state's coastal plains. They had to cope with 30,000 dead hogs, 2.5 million poultry carcasses and millions of gallons of livestock waste that were flushed into the state's waters.

The ecological damage could last for years in North Carolina's rivers, sounds and bays. Hurricanes are acts of nature, but nobody could have predicted such big and disastrous storms.

The catastrophe was sobering for pollution regulators in other states as well. Like those in North Carolina's agency, they're still figuring out how to manage insidious environmental threats posed by huge factory farming operations.

Around the country, state and local officials have their hands full these days dealing with the problem. Over the past decade, the nation's livestock industry has been transformed by large feeding operations that each raise several hundred or several thousand cattle, hogs or poultry. Roughly 75 percent of the country's swine are now produced by industrial-scale facilities that house a thousand or more animals. North Carolina's hog population multiplied five-fold since 1990 as farmers and outside investors built enormous automated structures to churn out pork and bacon.

North Carolina now ranks second to Iowa in producing hogs, but last year's storms exacted a heavy environmental price for the Tar Heel State. The consequences have been less dramatic in other places, but local residents in several states are nonetheless rebelling against large dairies, swine farms, poultry operations and egg producers that have sprung up in rural settings. Neighbors are offended by the odors, and communities worry that animal urine and feces are seeping into streams and groundwater. In Twin Falls, Idaho, protesters smeared rancid-smelling liquid cow excrement on a county courthouse railing after commissioners refused to declare a moratorium on opening big dairy operations.

With tempers flaring, federal and state regulators are searching for ways to limit pollution threats. Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed on a joint strategy to encourage most feeding facilities to control wastes closely through voluntary nutrient management plans. EPA also wants state governments to start subjecting big-time concentrated animal feeding operations--called CAFOs in environmental regulators' lingo-- to federal water-quality rules. That means that a firm with a thousand or more animals will have to get a pollution-discharge permit just like a factory or a sewage treatment plant does.

"These hog farms are large industrial facilities, and they need to be treated that way," Jon Sandoval, Idaho's environmental planning director, told fellow state regulators last fall. Some states have already begun issuing permits, but others aren't eager to take on the additional paperwork that will be required. Michigan, for instance, wants EPA to give states the flexibility to adopt "functionally equivalent" strategies for all livestock operations.

State officials contend that the federal Clean Water Act doesn't require permits for facilities that aren't designed with pipes running into streams or lakes. But that isn't how federal regulators see it. "As a practical matter, most of these CAFOs either discharge or have the potential to discharge. If you don't believe me, walk around them after it rains," Chuck Fox, EPA's chief water pollution administrator, told state commissioners last year. Moreover, a federal district court last year agreed with environmentalists and neighboring small farmers that eastern Washington dairies qualified as "point-source" polluters subject to water quality standards.

EPA and the states need to put their usual bickering aside and find some commonsense solutions. Even before last year's flooding, North Carolina was moving to bar swine farms from disposing of manure in open lagoons or by spraying it on fields. Environmentalists say states need to go further by keeping factory farms out of flood plains and other sensitive lands. That makes sense, but it's beyond the political reach of environmental agencies. As it is, some Idaho cities and counties object to letting state regulators oversee livestock feeding operations. Fewer than half of Nebraska's counties have land-use planning authority, and some are recruiting California dairies to move into the area.

The American Farm Bureau opposes regulating feeding operations. In rural states, the farmers, ranchers and small-town businessmen who dominate legislatures and county commissions won't countenance meddling by bureaucrats in state capitals. They are concerned that such interference will raise agriculture's operating costs.

At some point, however, states will have to deal with polluted agricultural runoff, not just from feed yards but also from the chemical pesticides and fertilizers farmers spray on their fields. That doesn't have to mean getting government permits, but the best farmers already recognize that they'll need to be more considerate about what happens on neighboring farms and towns. It shouldn't take natural disasters to convince them, but the time may be coming when rural leaders accept that preventing pollution could preserve, not imperil, their way of life.


More from Energy & Environment