Two trillion, 730 million pounds of it every year.That, according to a report of the Senate Agriculture Committee, is the waste produced by the 58 million beef cattle, 103 million hogs, 300 million turkeys and 7.6 billion chickens that are raised and slaughtered in the United States every year.
That's 130 times more waste from farm animals than is produced by every human being in this country. It's five tons of animal droppings for every single American. And it's untreated and unsanitary, bubbling with chemicals and disease-bearing organisms.
It's got to go somewhere, and it does. It goes onto the soil and into the water that many people will, ultimately, bathe in and wash their clothes with and drink. It is poisoning rivers and killing fish and sickening people.
This is a real and growing danger - and the federal government and most states are doing almost nothing about it. Here is the situation today as documented in Senate hearings:
- In 60 percent of American rivers and streams that the Environmental Protection Agency has identified as impaired, agricultural runoff and nutrients from animal waste are the greatest pol-lut-ants.
- Manure washed from feedlots is blamed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for impairing fisheries along 60,000 miles of streams. Surveys find animal waste is degrading 1,785 bodies of water in 39 states.
- Pollution from factory farms impairs more miles of U.S. rivers than all other industry sources and municipal sewers combined.
- During the past two decades, the number of coastal waters that host major and recurring attacks by harmful microbes has doubled.
- This runoff of nutrients from farms has created a "dead zone" of low oxygen in the Gulf of Mexico off the mouth of the Mississippi River, where up to 7,000 square miles of water cannot support most aquatic life.
- EPA tests found feedlot manure containing fecal streptococci and other fecal coliform bacteria "have contaminated ground water in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Kentucky, Iowa, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin."
Problems with animal waste are complicated by the fact that manure remains a vital part of American agriculture. It is the source for much of the nitrogen needed for grow-ing grain crops.
The National Pork Producers Council argues that for every pound of nitrogen produced in swine manure and then applied to cropland as fertilizer there are about two pounds of nitrogen piped directly into streams and rivers from industrial and municipal waste water treatment facilities.
"That statistic of five tons of manure for every human overlooks something," says Andy Baumert of the pork producers council. "Two thirds of it is distributed one plop at a time over 650 million acres of pasture and range land just like it has been for the last 100 years."
However, there does appear to be a growing danger from the remaining one-third of all that manure, which is piling up today around cattle feed lots, huge poultry barns and hog "factories."
Catastrophic cases of pollution, sickness and death are occurring in areas where livestock operations are concentrated.
Two years ago, 35 million gallons of spilled animal waste killed 10 million fish in North Carolina. Last year, pfiesteria piscicida, a toxic microbe linked to excessive nutrients from animal waste and farm runoff, killed an estimated 450,000 fish in that state.
Cryptosporidium, an organism considered particularly prevalent in calf waste, was the cause of an outbreak that left 400,000 people sick and killed 104 others in Milwaukee in 1993. Some scientists believe the state's dairy herds are to blame.
These examples point to one of the most glaring contradictions of health regulation today. Human waste is required to be sanitized. Animal waste - rich in nitrates, phosphates and capable of harboring microbes harmful to humans - is not.
Ever since passage of the Clean Water Act, municipalities have been under federal pressure to build more efficient sewage treatment facilities, and they have been doing so. This law demands that human sludge after treatment must meet many different requirements before it can be applied onto land.
Yet those standards are not required of animal manure. That waste is commonly spread raw across farmlands. From those fields there is, always, the risk that it may leach into the groundwater and be flushed by floods into the waterways.
Is the manure of farm animals somehow less potentially harmful to humans than human waste?
A study of pollution strength based on biochemical oxygen demand by John Chastain, a Minnesota agricultural extension engineer, states, "The data indicates that the pollution strength of raw manure is 160 times greater than raw municipal sewage."
Pigs pose a particular danger. They contract and transmit many human diseases, including meningitis, salmonella, chlamydia, giardia, cryptosporidiosis, worms and influenza. Pathogens lethal to people pass through the digestive tracts of pigs just as they do through humans.
It is believed that the 1918-1919 Spanish flu that killed 21 million people around the world originated with swine in the United States. Pigs also are believed to be the source in 1968 of the Hong Kong flu, which has since killed some 400,000 Americans.
That hazard from hogs increases when they are packed closely together - and that is exactly what is happening.
The problem is that agricultural and environmental regulations in force today are a generation out of date. Laws on animal waste grew out of times when farms were thought of as mom-and-pop operations, having no more than a few hundred animals, and pigs and chickens would drop their manure on the land and nature would quickly take care of it.
But the family farm is vanishing.
There are 300,000 fewer farmers now than 20 years ago. Four large corporations now control over 80 percent of the beef market. Over the past 15 years, the number of hog farms has fallen from 600,000 to 157,000, although about the same number of hogs are being produced.
The result is most animals are being grown in herds and flocks of many thousands. These aren't really animal farms. They're animal factories. A hog farm typically has a number of large metal barns, each housing up to a thousand animals, where pigs spend their lives jammed jowl to jowl and attached to feeding trays, never moving except as they rock from side to side, and never seeing the sun.
Their wastes are flushed from the floors of the barn and piped outside into lagoons. The idea is that gasses will evaporate and later the waste will be spread evenly over fields, where it will be absorbed into and fertilize the soil.
"But there is very little checking or enforcement," says Robbin Marks of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
That's because there are few regulations at the national level that set specific requirements for applying manure on land. There are no federal standards on the construction of the "lagoons," some of which are big enough to hold 30 million gallons of manure. EPA requires animal waste discharge permits only for operations that confine 6,000 or more animals.
Both EPA and the Agriculture Department say that Congress has refused to give them authority to strictly regulate animal waste.
The National Pork Producers Council says it supports national standards. It says it is working with EPA to agree on ways to use manure nutrients safely in crop production. "It is our position," Baumert says, "that confined animal feeding operations need to totally contain that manure."
That policy fails to satisfy environmental critics.
"Farmers spread manure on their fields as thick as peanut butter because there is no other way to use it or get rid of it," says Chad Smith, conservation policy analyst for American Rivers.
California's Central Valley is home to 891,000 milk cows - up 42 percent from a decade ago. Each cow typically produces as much waste as 24 humans. So these dairy herds are soiling this valley every year with as much natural waste as a city of 21 million people.
The 155,000 tons of waste from the 90 million chickens produced every year in West Virginia around the headwaters of the Potomac River officially haven't sickened the 2.5 million people living downstream. But last year Washington, D.C., began having bacteria outbreaks in its drinking water system, and for the second year in a row the Potomac is listed as one of the 20 most endangered rivers in the country because of pollution from poultry manure.
Utah farm fined for manure spill
Utah has a hog-farming operation that is home to some 32,000 hogs - with plans to raise up to 1.2 million animals. All of its waste is supposed to be contained in 80 vast open-air cesspools. Circle Four Farms says the liquid portion of the waste will evaporate in the dry desert air and solids will turn to sludge over a 20-year period and will be sold for fertilizer, if there's a market, or disposed of in landfills.
But last year at Circle Four, some 80,000 gallons of manure spilled into the groundwater when a pump failed and the waste backed into a water supply well. The state fined Circle Four $6,800. It wasn't more, state officials said, because "no one was hurt." - John Lang, Scripps Howard News Service