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.
The Public Health Menace No One Knows About<p>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.<br></p><p>When animal manure escapes from CAFOs into nearby water sources, it can have devastating <a href="https://stonepierpress.org/goodfoodnews/factory-farms-public-health" target="_blank">health consequences</a> for people and ecosystems. Manure can contain nitrogen and phosphorus, pathogens such as <em>E. coli</em>, growth hormones, antibiotics, chemicals used as additives to the manure or to clean equipment, animal blood and silage leachate from corn feed, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/docs/understanding_cafos_nalboh.pdf" target="_blank">reports</a> 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.</p><p><a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/21/us/california-central-valley-tainted-water.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share" target="_blank">The New York Times</a> 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 <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/25/us/flint-water-crisis.html?module=inline" target="_blank">water crisis</a> in Flint, Michigan. "Flint is everywhere here."</p>
Tying Data Patterns to Factory Farms<p>To put factory farms on the map, the Stanford team figured out how to teach a computer algorithm to analyze data patterns. They got <a href="https://woods.stanford.edu/news/machine-learning-environmental-enforcer" target="_blank">help</a> from Google's advances in image learning, the USDA's National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP), and the <a href="https://www.ewg.org/" target="_blank">EWG</a> and <a href="https://waterkeeper.org/" target="_blank">Waterkeeper Alliance</a>.<br></p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>There's another way to look at the research effort, she added. They were "very unglamorously looking at poop for months and months."</p><p>It paid off. Ho and Handan-Nader identified 15 percent more poultry farms than what was found through a manual census. The researchers <a href="https://woods.stanford.edu/news/machine-learning-environmental-enforcer" target="_blank">estimated</a> their algorithm could identify 95 percent of existing large-scale facilities using fewer than 10 percent of the resources required for a manual census.</p><p>"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."</p>
Replacing Guesswork With Evidence<p>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.</p><p>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."</p><p>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 <a href="https://psmag.com/news/missouri-outlaws-rural-residents-last-line-of-protection-against-cafos" target="_blank">seven</a> 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?</p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Emilie Karrick Surrusco
It's been nearly four months since Hurricane Florence battered the North Carolina coast, dumping 9 trillion gallons of water on the state in the span of four days. In Duplin County, home to the nation's largest concentration of industrial hog operations, the storm's deluge laid bare problems that persist in good weather and in bad.
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One of the biggest winning groups in Tuesday's midterm elections didn't even get to cast a ballot: the nation's farm animals.
By Wyatt Massey
Sue George never intended to be an activist. The soft-spoken, retired elementary school teacher was content on her century farm near Lime Springs, a town in the rolling hills of northeast Iowa with a tad under 500 people.
By Karen Perry Stillerman
In the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, I've joined millions who've watched with horror as the Carolinas have been inundated with floodwaters and worried about the various hazards those waters can contain. We've seen heavy metal-laden coal ash spills, a nuclear plant go on alert (thankfully without incident), and sewage treatment plants get swamped. But the biggest and most widely reported hazard associated with Florence appears to be the hog waste that is spilling from many of the state's thousands of CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), and which threatens lasting havoc on public health and the local economy.
"This was an unprecedented storm with flooding expected to exceed that from any other storms in recent memory. We know agricultural losses will be significant because the flooding has affected the top six agricultural counties in our state," said agriculture commissioner Steve Troxler in a press release.
The footprint of flooding from this storm covers much of the same area hit by flooding from Hurricane Matthew in 2016, which only worsens the burden on these farmers.
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Duke University Study: N.C. Residents Living Near Large Hog Farms Have Elevated Disease, Death Risks
By Olga Naidenko and Sydney Evans
Residents of communities near industrial-scale hog farms in North Carolina face an increased risk of potentially deadly diseases, Duke University scientists reported in a study released this week.
By Sacoby Wilson
As U.S. livestock farming becomes more industrial, it is changing rural life. Many people now live near Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs)—large facilities that can house thousands of animals in close quarters. Neighbors have to contend with noxious odors, toxic emissions and swarms of insects, and have had little success in obtaining relief—but this could be changing.
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The DC Circuit Court ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Tuesday to close a loophole that has allowed hazardous substances released into the environment by concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to go unreported.
Waterkeeper Alliance and 13 North Carolina Riverkeeper organizations have launched a new video campaign that captures the struggle of community members living with the impacts of industrial farm pollution.
The True Cost of Industrial Meat Production raises awareness of environmental injustices being perpetrated against North Carolina's most vulnerable populations and features powerful, first-hand accounts of community members, esteemed scientific experts and local people on the ground. This campaign shows the devastating impacts to public health, quality of life and local waterways caused by industrial animal agriculture.
The campaign is comprised of nine short videos:
- The True Cost of Industrial Meat Production: An overview of what is happening in North Carolina, where industrial animal production has taken the place of family farms.
- Wasting Away: Highlights the problem of industrial animal waste and how the pork industry is not being held accountable to dispose of it correctly.
- Belly Up: How waste generated by industrial meat production is decimating North Carolina's waterways and in turn, killing its fish and ecosystems.
- Birthright: Community members whose families have lived on their properties for generations talk about the heritage of their land and how it has been overtaken by industrial agriculture and animal waste.
- Prisoners: Residents discuss how they have become prisoners in their own homes due to the impacts of pollution from industrial animal production, which make it nearly impossible for them to enjoy their property.
- Mislabeled: How the pork industry deceives consumers with its marketing tactics and labeling of its products.
- Bullied: Duplin County resident Elsie Herring talks about how she has been intimidated and threatened by the pork industry to remain silent about the injustices she and her family faces.
- Silenced: The pork industry intimidates by bullying and seeking to silence the people most affected by the impacts of its pollution.
- The Value of Land: The pork industry's refusal to dispose of its waste in a regulated and more sustainable manner has decimated people's property values, making them unable to move.
This video campaign also expands on the recent landmark report and GIS initiative by Waterkeeper Alliance, North Carolina Riverkeeper organizations and Environmental Working Group that shows the location and waste outputs of more than 6,500 swine, cattle and poultry operations throughout North Carolina.
The slogan on Wisconsin’s license plate—“America’s Dairyland”—celebrates the state’s number one agricultural activity and iconic status as a milk and cheese producer. What it doesn’t reveal is how dramatically the dairy industry in Wisconsin and in other parts of the U.S. has been changing, or the environmental concerns those changes pose.
While milk carton imagery pictures bucolic, small farms, more than 50 percent of U.S. milk is now produced by just three percent of the country’s dairies—those with more than 1,000 cows, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The very largest U.S. dairies now have 15,000 or more cows.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
With this increased concentration of milking cows comes a corresponding concentration of manure production. And what happens to this manure is at the heart of the pollution issues surrounding the dairy industry.
In Wisconsin, several dairy operations are now facing opposition to plans to expand their herds. Porous karst soils in the parts of Wisconsin where a significant portion of dairy expansion is occurring present some unique environmental issues. Run-off from dairy farms and other agricultural activities has seeped into aquifers and elevated levels of nitrogen, in some instances to unsafe concentrations; in one recent case, the Wisconsin Department of Justice levied a $65,000 fine against a dairy operation for contaminating groundwater.
Neighbors of Kinnard Farms dairy, located in the Kewaunee County town of Lincoln—an area of karst soils—are now in court challenging the state’s approval of a permit that would allow the dairy to expand its herd from 4,000 to more than 6,000 milking cows. About 50 percent of the town’s private wells currently have water that exceeds bacteria or nitrate safety standards. Residents opposing the State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) permit contend that it lacks sufficient information about how the dairy will manage the tens of millions of gallons of liquid manure its cows will produce.
U.S. farm consolidation is nothing new, but recent changes in the dairy industry are transforming the business in ways that are increasingly worrisome to regulators, residents and environmental groups. Wisconsin embodies this consolidation trend. DNR figures show the number of Wisconsin dairy farms with more than 500 cows grew by about 150 percent in the past decade. At the same time, the overall number of dairy farms dropped by about one-third, just as they have nationwide. The number of U.S. dairy operations with 2,000 or more cows has grown faster than those of any other size as milk production has increased about 20 percent.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) a 2,000-cow dairy generates more than 240,000 pounds of manure daily or nearly 90 million pounds a year. The USDA estimates that the manure from 200 milking cows produces as much nitrogen as sewage from a community of 5,000 to 10,000 people.
This year and last, Wisconsin has fined several dairy operations for manure spills and manure runoff. According to an analysis by the Milwaukie Journal Sentinel, in 2013 a record number of manure spills—more than 1 million gallons worth—were recorded in Wisconsin. The newspaper reported that from 2007 to 2013, the state experienced an average of 15 manure spills annually from dairy farms. Roughly one-third of those spills came from large Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO).
“Wisconsin,” says Clean Wisconsin staff attorney Elizabeth Wheeler, “has a nitrate problem.”
Wisconsin is hardly alone in grappling with this problem. Similar pollution issues—primarily from spills related to manure storage—have been cropping up across the country. Some recent cases include:
- In February, in Michigan’s Allegan County, a stormwater system failure at a dairy with a 1-million-gallon manure lagoon spilled manure into nearby waterways, creating a visible plume five miles long.
- In Yakima, WA, the Community Association for Restoration of the Environment and the Center for Food Safety allege in an ongoing lawsuit now in federal court that manure spreading by five large dairies has caused nitrate and other contamination of groundwater and violates the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The plaintiffs contend that the way the manure is being applied is the equivalent of dumping solid waste, an activity covered by RCRA that has not previously been applied to manure spreading. The dairies filed a motion this month to dismiss the charges.
- In Canton, MN, a wall on an above-ground manure storage tank broke last April, spilling roughly 1 million gallons of manure.
In one of the larger cases of manure pollution in recent years, an estimated 15 million gallons of manure, water, and other matter spilled in 2010 into a slough that drains into the Snohomish River in Washington state, when a berm on a dairy farm’s manure lagoon failed.
Erin Fitzgerald, senior vice president for sustainability at the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, a trade group, says a dairy’s size does not determine how well its environmental impacts are managed. William Matthews, Oregon Department of Agriculture CAFO program manager, concurs. “There are stellar operators of all sizes,” he says.
Fitzgerald’s organization stresses the need for nutrient and water quality management plans tailored for each operation, and says dairy is “one of the most regulated and inspected industries in agriculture.” She also touts the industry’s voluntary commitment to “best practices” and improving its environmental footprint, including its 2008 commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent.
Milking cows, explains the EPA, produce more manure than beef cattle and the Holsteins that dominate the U.S. dairy industry produce almost twice as much manure as Jerseys. Cows that give more milk per cow also produce more manure and per-cow milk production has almost doubled since the 1970s.
Historically, dairies dealt with manure by applying it to fields as fertilizer, as many do today. But as dairy herds have grown, a single farm often has more manure than it can use at any one time. Excess is typically stored in lagoons. “When it comes to the environmental impacts of concentrated dairy operations, it all comes down to manure management,” says Kendra Kimbirauskas, board director of Friends of Family Farmers.
Questions about manure management have prompted opposition to a number of Wisconsin dairy operations’ plans for large or expanded herds. One of these farms is Burr Oak Heifers, located in Wisconsin’s Central Sands region, an area known for its porous souls. Burr Oak Heifers is seeking a Wisconsin DNR permit to house 3,100 cows, which are expected to produce an estimated 3.32 million gallons of liquid manure and 45,900 tons of solid manure annually. In 2013, the farm, operating under a different business name, was fined $65,000 by the state for contaminating groundwater, including private well water. The permit now up for approval would grant the farm an exception to Wisconsin’s groundwater nitrate concentration limit of 10 parts per million (ppm) and permit its nitrate discharge at 28 ppm.
Clean Wisconsin’s Wheeler calls the proposed nitrate discharge exemption “unprecedented.” The DNR explains that the exemption is based on background levels of nitrate present in groundwater coming onto the site from other sources, and that the permit will require groundwater monitoring and a “nutrient management plan” designed to control manure storage and how and when manure is spread on fields. The goal of such plans include preventing application of more nutrients than a farm’s soil can absorb and making sure it’s applied when it won’t easily run off, as in winter when the ground is frozen.
Wheeler notes that dairies have typically spread manure on their own fields to fertilize forage and other crops or contracted with other farms to do so. On small farms, the ratio of cows to pasture land generally allows for a sustainable nitrogen balance. But the majority of U.S. dairy herds are confined to barns throughout their entire lives and shuttle between stalls and milking parlors in enclosed corrals and corridors and eat silage and grain grown elsewhere. “We’ve kind of taken Mother Nature out of the picture,” says John Haarsma, manager of Rickreall Dairy, an Oregon operation with 3,500 cows.
In excess, manure’s nutrients—largely nitrogen and phosphorus—can create problems. Too much in surface water can create algae blooms that result in hypoxic or oxygen-deprived dead zones. According to the EPA, excess nutrients from agriculture, including chemical fertilizers and dairy manure, are a major source of water pollution across the U.S.
In Wisconsin, explains DNR hydrogeologist Bill Phelps, about 10 percent of all private wells exceed the state’s nitrate water quality standard. In areas of high agricultural activity where fertilizer use is high, this percentage rises to about 30 percent, said Phelps.
Manure also contains pathogens that may include E.coli and other fecal coliforms. In addition, manure often contains pharmaceuticals—antibacterials and hormones—given to many dairy cows to fight disease and promote growth. Some of Kewaunee County’s wells have tested positively for estrogenic, endocrine disrupting compounds. The source has not been pinpointed, but numerous studies suggest that CAFOs, through their use of pesticides and hormones, are a source of some estrogenic compounds that enter U.S. drinking water.
In New York, now the country’s third-largest milk producing state, dairy expansion has also become an environmental issue. An ongoing lawsuit is challenging a 2013 regulation change that would increase the size of dairies allowed to operate without a nutrient management plan from 199 to 299 cows. Environmental advocates say the New York Department of Environmental Conservation failed to consider environmental impacts. “It was made for economic reasons,” to support the state’s booming Greek yogurt industry, says Rivekeeper staff attorney Michael Dulong.
Lack of measures to prevent catastrophic manure spills is among the reasons Environmental Advocates of New York policy director Katherine Nadeau gives for her organization’s opposition to this regulation change. She cites a 2005 incident in which 3 million gallons of manure spilled from a New York dairy into a nearby river, killing thousands of fish.
One day this winter, I visited one of the dwindling number of smaller U.S. dairies—Double J Jerseys, a 200-cow dairy operation in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. As I arrived cows munched clover in the barnyard, near the Bansens’ front door. Jon Bansen, a third-generation dairy farmer who produces milk for the Organic Valley co-op, said that the ratio of cows to pasture on smaller farms leads to a sustainable nitrogen balance. The steady rise of large-scale dairy operations, he said, has been “fueled by cheap fuel and cheap feed,” adding, “more is not always better."
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