Air Date: Week of April 17, 1998
Air and water pollution from large, corporate-owned hog farms have prompted a new wave of regulation in some states. But, not in Colorado. Colorado’s hog industry has been growing fast ever since corporate hog farmers found out that it has some of the most lenient hog farming rules in the country. But that may soon change. State lawmakers and federal regulators are vowing to clean up the industry. From Colorado Public Radio, Thomas Lalley visits one county where pigs may soon outnumber people, twelve to one.
CURWOOD: This is the special Earth Day edition of Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Contrary to folklore, pigs can be rather tidy and friendly creatures if they have a spot to bathe, plenty of pasture, and places to root in the soil. But if you bunch hogs in a tiny pen, you'll soon get a stinking soup of dirt and manure that can be smelled for miles. Do that with thousands of hogs on a farm where the operators are careless, and you also get a sickening runoff of waste into local streams and creeks. Air and water pollution from large commercial hog farms has prompted a new wave of regulation in some states, but not in Colorado. The industry there has been growing fast because Colorado has some of the most lenient hog farming rules in the nation. That may soon change. State lawmakers and Federal regulators are vowing to clean up the industry. From Colorado Public Radio, Thomas Lalley visits one county where pigs may soon outnumber people 12 to 1.
LALLEY: The wind is a constant companion on the plains of eastern Colorado. These days in Yuma County, it has an added punch: the smell of tens of thousands of pigs. This sparsely-populated area near the Nebraska border is becoming the pig capital of Colorado. A lot of residents here worry about what these farms are doing to their county. They worry most about waste from thousands of hogs contaminating their water supply in the huge Ogalalla aquifer.
ROBERTS: Once it gets to the aquifer there's no way to clean it up. I mean, it's just -- we're dead if it happens. The groundwater is our only source of water, period. I mean, if it's contaminated then we have no water.
LALLEY: Jim Roberts is a fourth-generation wheat farmer from Laird.
ROBERTS: You go to North Carolina or Iowa, Minnesota, then accidents have happened sort of regularly. And they have a lot more surface water than we have so that water is really easy to contaminate. Here the effects are going to be much more long-term to see and determine, because it has to travel through the soil to get to the aquifer.
LALLEY: In fact, parts of the aquifer are already contaminated by nitrates, at levels more than twice the allowable standard. That poses a health threat to humans and livestock and could severely impact the ecosystem. The water pollution is blamed on improper application of hog waste onto corn fields where it's used as fertilizer.
LALLEY: Here is the source of the controversy. In a single barn at Western Pork in Yuma, thousands of females, or sows, are lined up neatly in individual 8 by 2-1/2 foot crates. From the day they're born until they're sent out for slaughter, each pig is kept indoors and closely monitored for appetite, health, and production of offspring. This facility is more like an assembly line than a farm. The waste -- and there's lots of it -- is collected in a basin under each barn, and each week is piped to lagoons outside. Peter Gadkowski is the president of Western Pork. He says the hog farms in Colorado are well designed, and the public has nothing to worry about.
(Much grunting in background)
GADKOWSKI: When properly run and with a waste system that's properly designed and managed, that we have de minimus or in fact no environmental impact. All of our waste as you've seen here is collected. It is then contained in large treatment lagoons, which are lined to make sure that there's no seepage into the aquifer. They're designed so that a storm event won't cause them to overflow. And that material, when it's properly decomposed, is then spread on growing crops.
LALLEY: But similar assurances haven't held up in the past. While no problems have been documented at Western Pork, other hog farms in Colorado and across the country have polluted the water. In one of the worst incidents, three spills in two weeks in 1995 sent over 30 million gallons of animal waste into North Carolina waterways. Since then many states, including North Carolina, have passed laws to regulate hog farms. But no such laws exist in Colorado. Patty Shwayder, director of the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, says state officials here wouldn't know if Western Pork or any other hog farm is doing a good job.
SHWAYDER: There's no requirement for these operations to report to us that (a) they even exist, much less (b) what type of an impact they're having. We do not have the money or the resources, or the authority to go after this in an aggressive way, and it's something I am not satisfied with. I don't think the legislature's satisfied with, I don't think the public is satisfied with.
LALLEY: Ms. Shwayder ways concerns over hog farms have risen, as hog production has soared in the state. In the past 10 years the state's pig production jumped from 331,000 to 1.4 million, and nearly all that growth has been on large corporate hog farms. In fact, while the number of hogs increased 4 times, the number of farms fell from 2,500 to just over 1,000. Colorado State Senator Joan Johnson worries that the boom in large hog farms is directly related to the state's weak regulations.
JOHNSON: What's happening with these large corporate operations, commercial operations, is they're moving into states that have little or no regulation, because they've being driven out of other states that have finally discovered the kind of environmental damage that they leave. And so they're moving west.
LALLEY: Senator Johnson has introduced a bill which would impose strict controls on odor and water pollution. Action is also pending on the Federal level. The US Environmental Protection Agency has recently announced a plan to hold large hog, cattle, poultry, and dairy farms to the same standards as factories. Dawn Martin is with the EPA Office of Water. She says as farms have become larger, waste has become more of a problem.
MARTIN: In this context of this kind of very intensive use and concentration of animals, there's a new understanding and a need to address the public health impacts on, to the community that lives around these facilities.
LALLEY: The industry doesn't cast the situation as darkly, but they do admit they have problems. Andy Baumert is with the National Pork Producers Council. He says public outrage over water contamination and odor from large hog farms has spurred the industry itself to act.
BAUMERT: We recognize that environmental management is the number one growth limiting factor in the pork industry today in the United States. Pork is the most popular meat in the world, and that demand is growing, and we understand that as an industry, if we hope to have any part of meeting that demand and capturing that additional market share, we've got to take care of the environmental issue.
LALLEY: The industry has imposed standards of its own to regulate the design and siting of new hog farms, and monitor fields where hog waste is applied as fertilizer. But those recommendations don't go as far as the measures now being considered by the EPA and the Colorado legislature. EPA says it will require wastewater discharge permits at thousands of unregulated farms and set levels for how much waste each farm can release. State Senator Johnson's bill goes even further. It would require hog farms to put up bonds to cover the cost of any environmental damage, and to cover waste lagoons to control odor. The bill is now working its way through the state legislature. For Living on Earth, I'm Thomas Lalley.
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