In my new book, "Animal Factory - The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment," I describe the efforts of Pro-Agribusiness members of Congress who have been working hard to make sure that spilled animal waste from industrial farms is exempted from federal Superfund clean-up rules.
The now-endangered Senator Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), along with House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Petersen (D-MN), are among several outspoken congressional champions of a rather obscure piece of legislation on a topic that few Americans spend much time pondering: Who should pay for manure spills at animal factories?
Ever since 2007, their efforts to undermine the Superfund law by permanently exempting manure as a hazardous waste has been "ruffling feathers on Capitol Hill," according to Politco.com.
Their bill did not pass, and has not yet been reintroduced in the current Congress. But it does beg the question: Is manure an organic fertilizer, or it is a dangerous pollutant with potentially devastating consequences for human health, the environment, and even local economies? It can, in fact, can be both.
The problem comes when too much livestock and poultry are concentrated into relatively small spaces, in order to facilitate the feeding and fattening of the animals as quickly as possible. These "concentrated animal feeding operations," or CAFOs, generate millions of gallons of waste, usually liquefied, every year. Often, the putrid crap-water is stored within massive earthen berms, euphemistically referred to as "lagoons."
But what happens when one of those lagoons burst, sending millions of gallons of brown sticky water onto neighboring properties and into waterways that belong to us all? Should we the taxpayers foot the bill? Blanche Lincoln and others seem to think so.
Please have a look at the following excerpt from "Animal Factory" - which describes a massive manure spill in North Carolina, as witnessed by one of the lead characters, Rick Dove of North Carolina, a retired Marine. Let me know what you think: Should the government exempt manure as a hazardous waste, shielded from the provisions of the Superfund law?
In June 1995, Rick got a call from Tom Madison, Riverkeeper on the New River, which flows past Jacksonville into a large estuary that cuts through Camp Lejeune before emptying into the Atlantic.
"Rick, we need you down here right away," he said. "There's been a massive lagoon spill on the New River, fifteen miles upstream. The sludge is now moving toward Jacksonville. They say a whole slew of fish are dying upriver already. When can you get here?"
Rick went outside, cranked the Lonesome D onto its trailer, loaded in his monitoring machines, and drove the eighty miles down to Onslow County.
The spill was three days old by this point and DEM had said nothing, hoping the crisis would just go away, Rick reckoned.
He met Tom in Jacksonville, a town of twenty thousand people next to Camp Lejeune. They dropped the Lonesome D in the water and steered her upriver. As they cruised along, Tom explained the genesis of the spill. It had happened near the town of Richland, at a huge operation called Oceanview Farm. The Purina- run site had eleven barns housing one thousand animals apiece. One of the earthen berms of the eight- acre lagoon had given way, leaving a twenty-five- foot gash in the side. Within several chaotic minutes, twenty-five million gallons surged across roads, driveways, crops, wetlands, and woods, before draining into a New River tributary.
For more than a mile around the lagoon, surrounding property became a nightmarish moonscape of tobacco and soybeans painted black in a sticky, malodorous coating. On State Road 1235, motorists were forging a foot- deep river of brown water. Cleaning the shit from their undercarriages would be a nasty job. All around the accident, black, brackish pools of sludge had formed into mini- waste lagoons, each emitting a vomit- inducing stench. Much of the neighborhood was choking in a dank, heavy cloud of gases. Downstream, dead fish dangled from mucky bushes like devilish ornaments.
Nearby stood a sign: WELCOME TO RICHLAND--TOWN OF PERFECT WATER.
"They're calling it the worst manure spill in North Carolina history," Tom said.
Ironically, the state's biggest spill had happened at its first hog farm to meet new requirements for protecting waterways. "Way to go, boys," Rick said sarcastically.
Two miles north of Jacksonville, Rick took his first reading with the water probe. The oxygen level was at zero. "Damn," he muttered. "We're going to have a very long day here." Another mile upriver, the men began noticing streaks of discoloration flowing downstream-- wide bands of foamy grayish- yellow, with flecks of maroon around the edges. By now, Rick knew what hog odor smelled like; this was hog odor. A few miles later, oxygen readings rebounded somewhat, suggesting the worst of it was behind them.
"This big old blob of crap is going to reach Jacksonville in a couple of hours," Rick said. "We need to alert the officials there." They spun around, throttled the Lonesome D to her max speed of 50 miles per hour, and headed south through the foamy water. Back in Jacksonville, on a warm Sunday afternoon, the riverfront was teeming with vacationers and U.S. Marine Corps families unaware of the incident. People were boating, waterskiing, and frolicking on Jet Skis in wide lazy circles. Rick could not believe his eyes. "It's been three days," he said, "why have no warnings been posted? Where the hell is our government?"
Rick reached for his cell phone and dialed the Onslow County health director.
Nobody was there on a Sunday, so he left a message. He called Ron Levine, the state health director-- same story. He even tried the local hospital, but they had no idea what to do. Ticked off, Rick asked Tom to help him handletter warning signs alerting people to the animal waste and dangerous pathogens in the water. They posted them on docks and bridges. They also opted for a more direct approach.
"Hog crap!" they cried to anyone in sight. "There's hog crap coming downstream! Bacteria! Viruses!" As it dawned on vacationers that something dreadful was heading their way, they quickly abandoned the water. Within an hour, the riverfront was deserted. Still disgusted by the nonaction of the "authorities," Rick pulled the boat onto its trailer and drove home.
The next day, he gave Ron Levine hell. "What is wrong with you folks?" he yelled. "I've been after your butts for months, begging you to come down and have a look at our rivers, our dead fish, and our sick people. But you did nothing, Dr. Levine. And now there are millions of gallons of hog crap floating past Jacksonville, and you do nothing to warn folks. You are the health director, right?"
David Kirby was interviewed on March 4 by Leonard Lopate of WNYC Radio in New York. To listen, please CLICK HERE