The Prairie Star reported yesterday that Congress is considering amending the Superfund Law to exclude livestock manure from being considered hazardous waste. Several politicians — including Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), chair of the House agriculture committee — are quoted as bloviating about how if this doesn't pass, small family farms could be put out of business, and attempts to use manure in methane digesters to produce energy could be derailed.
My bullshit detector went off immediately.
Its alarm only increased in volume upon reading how "this is a tough issue and a tough one to explain to those people who don't live out in the country and not affiliated with farming," according to Peterson. He continues: "Congress never intended for Superfund to apply to farms, but the judicial system has done just that, threatening the livelihood of farmers and ranchers everywhere by trying to equate manure with the toxic and industrial waste that has been responsible for some of America's worst chemical spills."
Actually, it's not very hard to understand, and in fact, manure spills can be every bit as deadly as chemical ones. This is not about small family farms at all. Large proprietors of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), want protection from liability lawsuits arising from their "manure lagoons," which have a distressing tendency to leak or break and spill thousands of gallons of phosphorus-laden feces into public waterways.
The main argument for excluding these operations seems to be that their activities are already regulated sufficiently under the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.
Let's review how well the EPA's regulations have worked as a deterrent. From Rolling Stone's excellent December article on Smithfield, the massive hog farm operator:
Smithfield is not just a virtuosic polluter; it is also a theatrical one. Its lagoons are historically prone to failure. In North Carolina alone they have spilled, in a span of four years, 2 million gallons of shit into the Cape Fear River, 1.5 million gallons into its Persimmon Branch, one million gallons into the Trent River and 200,000 gallons into Turkey Creek. In Virginia, Smithfield was fined $12.6 million in 1997 for 6,900 violations of the Clean Water Act — the third-largest civil penalty ever levied under the act by the EPA. It amounted to .035 percent of Smithfield's annual sales.
Smithfield, of course, is not the only polluter on such a massive scale.
Also from the Rolling stone article:
The biggest spill in the history of corporate hog farming happened in 1995. The dike of a 120,000-square-foot lagoon owned by a Smithfield competitor ruptured, releasing 25.8 million gallons of effluvium into the headwaters of the New River in North Carolina. It was the biggest environmental spill in United States history, more than twice as big as the Exxon Valdez oil spill six years earlier. The sludge was so toxic it burned your skin if you touched it, and so dense it took almost two months to make its way sixteen miles downstream to the ocean. From the headwaters to the sea, every creature living in the river was killed. Fish died by the millions.
Back to Superfund. Passed in 1980, Superfund's full name is the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). It gave the federal government the authority to respond directly to releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances that may endanger public health or the environment. According to a handy "fact sheet" (PDF, alas) put out by the Environmental Action Network, Congress did not fail to exclude manure from the definition of "hazardous substance" by accident. Otherwise, why would it have excluded the "normal application of fertilizer" from the law’s definition of "release"?
The term "normal field application," according to the legislative history, means "the act of putting fertilizer on crops or cropland, and does not mean any dumping, spilling, or emitting, whether accidental or intentional, in any other place or of significantly greater concentration or amounts that are beneficial to crops."
So much for Senator Peterson's scare tactics about how family farms won't be able to use their own animals' manure anymore.
The Environmental Action Network's fact sheet also says that in the 25-year history of Superfund, there have been only three Superfund lawsuits to address manure-related contamination. In all three, a city or state governmental body sued large-scale CAFOs (two cases involving poultry producers, one with dairy operators) over refusing to clean up public water supplies or waterways they had polluted.
Why didn't these groups just bring suit under the Clean Water Act? Well, neither it nor the Clean Air Act authorize government agencies to seek recovery of damages for injury to, or destruction of, natural resources. Superfund is alone among the federal statutes in permitting state and local governments to recover cleanup costs from parties responsible for contamination of local drinking water supplies.
Sen. Blanch Lincoln (D-Ark.), one of the sponsors of the Orwellian-titled "Agricultural Protection and Prosperity Act of 2007," makes an interesting appeal to urban and metropolitan politicians as to why they should support the bill. "If we are going to continue to eat as a civilization we are going to have animal waste," she says. "And what would be much more productive from our standpoint is to encourage production of renewable fuels from this.…So I hope we have a positive response direction in terms of where we go with this, as opposed to getting mired down with people who just want to be negative."
I hate to be negative, but again, it's necessary to point out that nothing in the Superfund act's language would inhibit the use of methane digesters by dairies to create electricity, or generators that run on chicken fat, etc. All it currently does is provide a method of recourse should CAFO proprietors fail to deal with their waste responsibly.
I know, I know — as a city dweller, I simply can't understand. I do know that many, many laws govern how cities must treat and dispose of the waste produced by the human animals that dwell within their boundaries. Imagine if my city of Oakland, California, was allowed to just dump it in a million-gallon concrete-lined lagoon for the next big earthquake to send flooding into the San Francisco Bay — and not spend a dime to help clean up the mess afterward.
The examples cited above, about Smithfield's misdeeds in North Carolina, show clearly that the EPA's million-dollar wrist-slaps are insufficient to deter companies. Waste management is indeed a huge problem for CAFO proprietors, but excluding it from Superfund's reach is not the solution. And saying that it's a "city" vs. "country" issue, or that it's a matter of survival for small family farms, is beyond cynical — especially for two Democratic senators.
It's bullshit. (Or chickenshit, take your pick.)
A few weeks ago, several groups including the Sierra Club, Food and Water Watch, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition sent a letter (PDF) to members of Congress urging them to vote against the Agricultural Protection and Prosperity Act of 2007. I hope you will consider letting your own representatives know what you think, whether you're "city" or "country."
Photo credits: Manure collection tank at the Beltsville (Maryland) Agricultural Research Center, from the USDA's Agricultural Research Service photo library. Aerial photo of North Carolina hog-farm manure lagoon from Google Earth (see related post).