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The Planet
May 1999 Volume 6, Number 4

Big-Pig Strategy A Mixed Bag

By Ken Midkiff

In March, after months of meetings and negotiations with environmental groups, family farmers, sustainable-agriculture advocates and agri-business associations, Vice President Al Gore rolled out the Unified National Strategy for Animal Feeding Operations.

In plain talk, that's the "Plan to Handle Massive Amounts of Pig and Chicken Manure." The Clinton administration was immediately deluged with applause - and criticism.

Confined animal feeding operations, called CAFOs or AFOs, cram thousands of animals into one facility; their waste is flushed into huge cesspools larger than football fields and 25 feet deep. From there, the untreated waste is slurried through pipes and sprayed via "manure guns" onto adjacent fields.

But the cesspools leak and pollute groundwater, wastes run off into streams, rivers and estuaries, and there's a constant reek from the concentration of thousands and thousands of animals and their wastes. Property values have plummeted on adjacent lands, the market glut has driven hog prices to an all-time low and thousands of independent producers have been driven out of the hog-raising business.

These operations in no way resemble family farms; they're industrial factories that churn out pork and chicken. Instead of smokestacks belching hydrocarbons, they pollute waterways by overwhelming them with manure. And they should be regulated as factories. We were pretty sure the administration agreed with us when an AFO strategy was called for in President Clinton's Clean Water Action Plan in 1998.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency produced a fairly weak draft AFO strategy in September 1998. Public hearings held around the country attracted hundreds of participants - most of them rural residents who were mad as hell about the proliferation of these animal factories.

I sent a letter to Chuck Fox, head of the EPA Office of Water, telling him what we wanted from the new strategy. The chart below shows what we wanted, what we got and where they let us down.

At best, the strategy can be viewed as an admission by the USDA and EPA that these animal factories are causing environmental problems.

It is a beginning point that can be altered, strengthened (and, presumably, weakened), revised and renewed. There are guidelines to develop, rules to devise and promulgate, and standards to be determined.

Individuals and groups concerned with clean air, clean water and sustainable, diversified farming will have many opportunities to shape this mixed bag into positive results.

So, back to the trenches - and we'll keep you informed about when to plug in.

For more information: E-mail Ken Midkiff at to receive regular updates on factory-farming issues.

Strategy Summary

What we asked for and what we got.

Require poultry operations to get federal wastewater permits. Got it.

Focus on the largest, most polluting operations first. Got it.

Do away with "voluntary compliance/self audit" rules. Got it. All references to "voluntary compliance/self audit" deleted.

Impose more stringent groundwater-protection standards. Got it. Groundwater protection will get more attention.

Address AFOs located in "impaired" watersheds. Got it. They'll get immediate attention, and future ones will be strictly regulated.

Require individual permits, rather than one-size-fits-all general permits. Got it. New or expanded operations must get individual permits before production can begin.

Moratorium on any new or expanded operations until current ones are brought under control. Didn't get it.

Give no financial assistance to AFO owners or operators that produce more than 2,500 hogs per year. Didn't get it.

Require reduction of odors and air emissions. Didn't get this either.

Shorter timelines to comply. Or this.

Phase out cesspool-and-spray system; require proven treatment technologies. Or this. There was no admission that the system is flawed, or will be disallowed.

Go on to the next article, "Wetlands Watch Out!"

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