The Scary New Math of Factory Farm Waste
By Tia Schwab
It has been almost a year since Hurricane Florence slammed the Carolinas, dumping a record 30 inches of rainfall in some parts of the states. At least 52 people died, and property and economic losses reached $24 billion, with nearly $17 billion in North Carolina alone. Flood waters also killed an estimated 3.5 million chickens and 5,500 hogs.
A lesser-known impact of the devastating hurricane was revealed through satellite photos released after the storm. Excessive rainfall flooded concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in low-lying areas, carrying riverbed sediment and animal waste previously stored in open-air lagoons into nearby waterways and then into the Atlantic. The difference between the photos, taken just five months apart before and after the storm, is striking.
Here are before-and-after photos of the coastline near Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune on April 12, 2018, and then on Sept. 19, 2018, after Hurricane Florence dumped near-record amounts of rainfall.
This photo is from April 12, 2018.Landsat 8 / NASA
Sept. 19, 2018: The dark brown liquid spilling into the Atlantic captured in this image is a mix of rainwater, riverbed sediment and waste from those factory farms within the 100-year flood plain that were inundated with more than 20 inches of rain in the matter of a couple of days. Landsat 8 / NASA
Generally, CAFOs dispose of animal waste by spraying it as fertilizer and storing the excess in massive underground pits or open-air lagoons, where sulfur-eating bacteria often turn the mixture bright pink. Given that cropland can absorb only so much, a good deal of the waste ends up in groundwater, rivers, streams and the ocean. In fact, agriculture is the leading cause of pollution in the nation's rivers and lakes, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), much of it emanating from large-scale factory farms.
Floods can have even more devastating consequences for water quality. The risk is particularly pressing for North Carolina, a state regularly smacked by hurricanes, because it houses more than 2,200 hog CAFOs and 3,900 poultry CAFOs, and produces up to 10 billion gallons of animal waste a year. These estimates come from the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
One problem is that they are just that — estimates.
The truth is no one really knows how much factory farm waste is escaping into our environment because no federal agency collects consistent and reliable information on the number, size and location of large-scale agricultural operations, nor the pollution they're emitting. This means there is considerable variation on how thoroughly states track and monitor CAFOs. Without this information, no one can monitor and hold CAFOS accountable for mismanaged waste and related health and environmental damage.
Stanford Law Prof. Daniel Ho and Ph.D. student Cassandra Handan-Nader are hoping to change that. In a paper published in Nature Sustainability in April, they show how a new algorithm can help put CAFOs on the map. Their research focused on hog and poultry operations. The latter can contribute as much nutrient runoff to watersheds as pig operations but are largely unpermitted in North Carolina and therefore much harder to detect.
The Clean Water Act requires permits for CAFOs that discharge pollutants directly into federally regulated waters. However, permits are not required for facilities that may discharge pollutants, say, if there was a break in the manure storage tank or a hurricane. An estimated 60 percent of CAFOs do not hold permits, reported the EPA in 2011, and so monitoring these facilities for unintentional pollution is nearly impossible.
Due to the lack of information about CAFOs and the failure of the government to provide oversight, several environmental and public interest groups have conducted their own studies of the issue. Several of these organizations have hired contractors to manually scan satellite images or physically identify facilities by plane or car. But this process is time- and resource-intensive. For North Carolina alone, contractors need about six weeks to manually scan satellite images on Google Maps, according to the EWG.
Ho and Handan-Nader's automated approach could accomplish the same task in less than two days.
The development is a welcome one in an industry notoriously lacking in transparency. Around 25 states have pushed for "ag-gag" laws, which criminalize undercover filming or photography at factory farms without the consent of the owner. Nine states have passed these laws, and legislation is pending in two additional states, Kansas and North Carolina. In Idaho, Utah and Wyoming, ag-gag laws were later struck down in higher courts as a violation of free speech and equal protection.
Proponents of ag-gag laws argue that they protect the animal agriculture industry, and farm owners' privacy. Critics say it gives factory farmers license to continue practices that are dirty, unsafe and cruel. "This project helps mitigate a dangerous dearth of information about CAFOs," said Katie Cantrell, executive director of the Factory Farming Awareness Coalition. "Because CAFOs are exempt from reporting requirements under the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, many communities across the United States are subjected to contaminated drinking water and dangerous levels of air pollutants, with little political recourse."
The Public Health Menace No One Knows About
The health and environmental impact of CAFOs is indeed enormous. "CAFOs are large-scale facilities that house thousands if not tens of thousands of animals in very small spaces," said Ho. "One CAFO can produce as much manure as a medium-size city in the United States" — with one critical difference: A medium-size city in the U.S. is required under the Clean Water Act to have a municipal wastewater treatment plant. CAFOs have no such treatment plant.
When animal manure escapes from CAFOs into nearby water sources, it can have devastating health consequences for people and ecosystems. Manure can contain nitrogen and phosphorus, pathogens such as E. coli, growth hormones, antibiotics, chemicals used as additives to the manure or to clean equipment, animal blood and silage leachate from corn feed, reports the National Association of Local Boards of Health. Ammonia is also often found in surface waters surrounding CAFOs. When exposed to air, ammonium converts into nitrate, and elevated nitrate levels in drinking water have been connected to poor general health, birth defects and miscarriages. For infants, it can mean blue baby syndrome and even death.
The New York Times recently exposed the devastating effects of nitrate contamination from animal manure in low-income farmworker communities in California's Central Valley. The widespread application of chemical fertilizers and dairy cow manure has made the water unsafe for drinking, cooking and even showering. Camille Pannu, the director of the Aoki Water Justice Clinic at the University of California, Davis, likens the situation to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. "Flint is everywhere here."
Tying Data Patterns to Factory Farms
To put factory farms on the map, the Stanford team figured out how to teach a computer algorithm to analyze data patterns. They got help from Google's advances in image learning, the USDA's National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP), and the EWG and Waterkeeper Alliance.
The environmental groups supplied locations of CAFOs they had collected manually. The researchers matched those locations to NAIP satellite images, hand-validating the presence of CAFOs using these same processes. Once CAFOs were confirmed, the team combined this information with open-source image-recognition tools released by Google, which were already trained to identify different types of objects, buildings, people and animals in photos.
In receiving this information, the algorithm was retrained to identify CAFOs by looking for certain visual cues. "Swine farms were identifiable by compact rectangular barns abutted by large liquid manure pits, and poultry by long rectangular barns and dry manure storage," noted the researchers in their report. The algorithm could then be applied to unscanned locations to identify unseen CAFOs.
Handan-Nader explained this process as the retraining of an existing technology. "Instead of working with a baby, we got a toddler, who knows what an arm is, but maybe doesn't know what an entire person looks like," said Handan-Nader. In this case, the arm is a building, and an entire person is a CAFO.
To improve the tool's accuracy, the team also fed the algorithm photos of stadium bleachers, airplane hangars and mobile home parks, which only appear to match the CAFO visual cues. "Just as humans learn from being tricked, so does a computer," said Handan-Nader.
There's another way to look at the research effort, she added. They were "very unglamorously looking at poop for months and months."
It paid off. Ho and Handan-Nader identified 15 percent more poultry farms than what was found through a manual census. The researchers estimated their algorithm could identify 95 percent of existing large-scale facilities using fewer than 10 percent of the resources required for a manual census.
"Dr. Ho's work makes my job much easier," said Soren Rundquist, the director of spatial analysis at the EWG. "While humans will always need to validate and quality check computer-generated results, any innovation for locating CAFOs will make the process much more efficient. This is paramount when keeping up with an industry that can grow quickly, having an immediate impact on the environment and public health."
Replacing Guesswork With Evidence
The tool works with conventional satellite imagery, but future iterations could be trained to identify new spectral signatures, like building materials, lagoons, or actual discharges into waterways. The tool could also help detect other forms of environmental degradation, like oil spills. Stephen Luby, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, is already using a similar technology to track brick kilns, a huge source of air pollution.
Katie Cantrell envisions using the tool to provide solid evidence of the harm done by factory farming. "This mapping project provides an invaluable resource for advocates at the local, state, and national level," she said. "They can use it to document correlations between the location and density of CAFOs and socioeconomic data, health data such as asthma and mortality rates, and air and water pollution data, that can hopefully help drive better regulation and protection of front-line communities." Added EWG's Rundquist, "The need for this utility is becoming more important as public information around these operations becomes more opaque and unavailable."
In the meantime, Missouri voted last month to prevent counties from passing more stringent laws regulating CAFOs. Now, local standards for health and environmental protection cannot be tougher than those of the state. In doing so, Missouri joins seven other states this year who have considered strengthening protections for CAFOs, which raises the question: Who is strengthening protections for our environment and local communities?
Tia Schwab is a news fellow for Stone Pier Press, a San Francisco-based environmental publishing company with a food focus. She recently graduated from Stanford University, where she studied human biology with a concentration in food systems and public health. She was born and raised in Austin, Texas, and she is passionate about using storytelling to create a healthy, just, and sustainable food system.
By Michael Svoboda, Ph.D.
Despite a journey to this moment even more treacherous than expected, Americans now have a fresh opportunity to act, decisively, on climate change.
The authors of the many new books released in just the past few months (or scheduled to be published soon) seem to have anticipated this pivotal moment.
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By Katy Neusteter
The Biden-Harris transition team identified COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change as its top priorities. Rivers are the through-line linking all of them. The fact is, healthy rivers can no longer be separated into the "nice-to-have" column of environmental progress. Rivers and streams provide more than 60 percent of our drinking water — and a clear path toward public health, a strong economy, a more just society and greater resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.
Public Health<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyNDY3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkxMTkwNn0.pyP14Bg1WvcUvF_xUGgYVu8PS7Lu49Huzc3PXGvATi4/img.jpg?width=980" id="8e577" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1efb3445f5c445e47d5937a72343c012" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="3000" data-height="2302" />
Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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