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Anthropocene Reporter: Like a good neighbor, CAFOs should care

Iowa is praised for its friendly residents, open spaces and stunning seasons. But its agricultural industry takes the cake, and the headlines, with its world-renowned row-crop and livestock productions netting more than 30 billion dollars in 2012.

Besides acting as the scenic view along the 300 miles of Interstate 80 in Iowa, the agriculture industry provides for many of Iowa’s farmers. One of the most popular, and profitable, trends in agriculture today is the advent of the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO). CAFOs are intensive, enclosed livestock-rearing facilities, most often used for producing pigs and chickens, which are rapidly outpacing traditional animal feedlots as the preferred method of raising livestock.

Iowa currently has some 3,000-plus CAFOs, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, and has worked hard to attract them. With its irresistible combination of lax environmental policy and Big Ag ruling the land, Iowa has welcomed CAFO companies and corporations as they flee the stricter environmental regulation in other states.

Poweshiek County is no exception to this welcome wagon policy, with its 60 CAFOs county-wide. There are more than 119,168 pigs and 9,933,200 chickens within 10 miles of the College campus alone. Despite Iowa’s welcoming embrace, CAFOs have failed to reciprocate the good neighbor tradition.

The high profit margins that attract so many farmers to the CAFO proposition in the first place are costing Iowa’s environment and residents dearly. The environmental costs of CAFOs are evident in the continually worsening quality of Iowa’s surface waters, the toxic gases (ammonia and hydrogen sulfide mainly) from literal tons of untreated animal waste sullying local air quality, and growing concentrations of antibiotics released by animals treated preemptively to compensate for paltry care. People also bear these costs, through lower quality of life due to stench and its health impacts, as well as reduced property values with CAFO neighbors.

To be fair, these CAFOs have a lot of (literal) shit to deal with. A single hog of average market weight produces 40 pounds of waste per day, leaving a CAFO of 2,500 hogs nearly 92,000 pounds of waste to manage. While traditional animal feedlots actively managed waste by mixing it with hay to cultivate nutritious manure, it is cheaper to dilute this sewage with water and store it.

What does a CAFO do with 33 million pounds of untreated animal waste produced per year? Iowa law solves that, through policies that facilitate manure-spraying privileges for farmers using CAFO waste. Iowa law does stipulate that CAFO waste must be applied in ways that “will not cause surface or groundwater pollution.” A helpful reminder, maybe. But given that for CAFOs the only requirement for manure application to land is to sift out the “solids” from the animal waste, it’s a pretty pitiful addition.

Although the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is responsible for keeping CAFOs in line with these sparse regulations, it’s been caught in the animal shit before. In 2007, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (ICCI) petitioned the EPA to revoke Iowa DNR’s authority to enforce the Clean Water Act, citing gross neglect of the CAFO industry. EPA conducted a review of the DNR’s compliance with both federal and state regulations on water quality, and found that the state authority was not even bothering to issue permits in half the cases, let alone pursue known violations.*

Even if the DNR were persuaded to enforce state and federal environmental regulations, the CAFO industry is backed by the legendarily immune Big Ag lobby. Litigation has largely been the law of the CAFO-ridden land, with more and more citizens’ and environmental rights groups suing the EPA to pursue CAFO regulation. EPA proposed permitting for CAFOs to control water pollution in 2003 and again in 2008 but the courts sided with the Ag industry’s fabricated nuances of waste discharges, citing the need for proven spills.

“Innocent until proven guilty” is a luxury Big Ag has bought for CAFOs, but evidence of their guilt is starting to break their bank. With hundreds of lawsuits against CAFOs currently ongoing in Iowa, small but significant victories are starting to appear. In Poweshiek County last week, a jury found Prestage Farms responsible for negatively impacting the quality of life of the plaintiff, Patricia McIlrath, and awarded her $500,000 from Prestage, a rarity and possibly precedent-setting result in the forward march of CAFOs across Iowa’s landscape.

However, even this case was hard-fought and refuted by the CAFO in question. Prestage’s defense argued that the odor would be objectionable only one to three percent of the time for a house that was just over 2,200 feet from a pit of 800,000 gallons of watered-down pig shit. In fact, Prestage reaffirmed that they not only complied with all regulations, they went beyond strict requirements—the CAFO is placed more than 1,000 feet beyond the minimum required by law for residences adjacent to CAFOs. Besides, they only have 2,496 hogs, technically four hogs below the official definition of a CAFO-scale operation.

And Prestage would be right. They are technically within the law and conform to Iowa’s environmental regulations for CAFOs. That’s the crux of the problem: Iowa’s laws don’t hold CAFOs to high enough standards, so how can we expect them to be reasonable neighbors when they are in fact industrial complexes? If we want cleaner waterways, better air quality and better environmental stewardship, our laws must require it. Which means we, as Iowa’s citizens, by extension must demand it from the policymakers that are allowing families like the McIlraths and many more across Poweshiek and Iowa to suffer the consequences of a nation enamored with cheap bacon.

* “Preliminary Results of an Informal Investigation of the National Pollutants Discharge Elimination System Program for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations in the State of Iowa.”

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    Chris GauntMar 3, 2015 at 1:28 pm

    Wondering how you came up with 40 pounds of waste per day from a market hog? Knowing from experience that a market hog weighing 260-280 pounds eats about 5-6 pounds of feed per day, and may gain 2-2.5 pounds per day at the end of it’s life, I think a market hog produces more like 7 pounds of waste per day (not 40) — still a lot of untreated manure to deal with.