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[Archived] Warnings from public health officials at D.C. hearing on animal waste

| Environment | January 10, 2019

WASHINGTON, D.C.//November 16, 2005//Public health officials and citizens would get no warning about the often serious health dangers posed by animal runoff pollution in lakes, streams, aquifers and other bodies of waters now used for drinking water, fishing and swimming if Congress weakens reporting and right-to-know laws for factory farm operations, according to Michele M. Merkel, senior counsel, Environmental Integrity Project.

In testimony today before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Environment & Hazardous Materials of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, Merkel said: “We are concerned about recent Congressional interest in exempting all hazardous releases associated with manure, including ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, from the notification and reporting requirements under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) and the Emergency Reporting and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA). We urge you to continue to require hazardous release reporting under these statutes from large agricultural operations that release ammonia or other hazardous substances at levels that may jeopardize public health. In addition, we urge you to maintain authority under CERCLA to require livestock operations to clean up unpermitted releases of hazardous waste to the environment. Without these statutes, the government is left powerless to protect critical natural resources like public drinking water supplies and the public is unwittingly exposed to potentially dangerous quantities of hazardous pollutants.”

Merkel noted that factory farm operations are on the rise and should be treated no differently than other commercial polluters. She said: “The face of animal agriculture has changed dramatically in recent years. The traditional practices of the independent farmer have yielded to an industrial paradigm that rests on economies of scale and externalization of pollution control costs. Large-scale ‘factory farms’ are rapidly taking over the meat industry, and production practices that involve animals grazing on pasture are quickly disappearing. A new system of animal agriculture has taken hold, one that more closely resembles manufacturing than it does farming. Unless properly regulated, this new form of agriculture has the potential to do unthinkable damage to the environment.”

Merkel debunked the industry-promoted myth that family farms are endangered by enforcement of the federal environmental provisions under attack today. She noted: “There have only been a handful of cases filed against AFOs for violations of CERCLA and EPCRA. In most of the cases, the defendants have been large corporate agribusinesses, not family farmers, and the releases of hazardous chemicals have been significant. Court decisions have consistently held that CERCLA and EPCRA reporting requirements apply to agricultural operations if releases of regulated hazardous substances meet regulatory thresholds.”

The EIP expert warned that factory farming pollution is a growing problem. Merkel said: “These pollutants often impair water quality in the nation’s rivers and lakes when manure overflows from storage ‘lagoons’ or when pollutants released to the air redeposit on waterways. For example, in 1995, approximately 25 million gallons of manure was discharged from a single hog CAFO in North Carolina. Similarly, discharges of thousands of gallons of animal waste have been reported in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and New York. These discharges wreak havoc on the receiving waters, often killing hundreds of thousands of fish per event.”

The chief concern about factory family pollution is the risk posed to human health. “[Manure] contamination of water poses serious risks to human health. Manure-related microbes in water can cause severe gastrointestinal disease, complications and even death. In May 2000 in Walkerton, Ontario, an estimated 2,321 people became ill and seven died after drinking water from a municipal well contaminated with E.coli and Camplyobacter from runoff resulting from manure spread onto fields by a nearby livestock operation. Manure can also carry arsenic and other toxic metal compounds, as well as antibiotics, into water contributing to antibiotic resistance … pollution from animal confinements may cause nitrate contamination of drinking water supplies, which can result in significant human health problems including methemoglobinemia in infants (‘blue baby syndrome’), spontaneous abortions and increased incidence of stomach and esophageal cancers.”

Merkel added that factory farms “… emit significant amounts of particulate matter (fecal matter, feed materials, skin cells, bioaerosols, etc.), ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, and other harmful contaminants into the air. Adverse human health effects associated with air pollution from AFOs are manifold and may include respiratory diseases (asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, industrial bronchitis), cardiovascular events (sudden death associated with particulate air pollution), and neuropsychiatric conditions (due to odor as well as delayed effects of toxic inhalations.). Other problems include increased headaches, sore throats, excessive coughing, diarrhea, burning eyes, and reduced quality of life for nearby residents. AFO air pollution tends to be especially problematic from a public health perspective because neighboring communities are exposed on a near-constant basis.”

Enforcement of the law will keep the public informed and also force factory farm operators to stay on their best behavior, Merkel said. “The right-to know provisions of CERCLA and EPCRA not only empower government but also citizens. Information about chemical releases enables citizens to hold companies and local governments accountable in terms of how toxic chemicals are managed. Transparency also often spurs companies to focus on their chemical management practices since they are being measured and made public. In addition, the data serves as a rough indicator of environmental progress over time. “