Too much poop can be hazardous to your health

 

Should large quantities of manure from giant commercial farms be considered hazardous waste?  They're not right now, and at least 14 members of Congress want to keep it that way. The group, which includes Idaho Representative Mike Simpson (R), recently signed on to the Superfund Common Sense Act, a bill that would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from ever classifying manure mountains as a hazardous.

Why does this matter? Because if EPA ever did decide manure was hazardous, it could be regulated under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (referred to as Superfund), the only environmental law in the country that allows local and state authorities (who bear the brunt of pollution problems and cleanup costs) to recoup cleanup costs from those who made the mess in the first place. It would also require emissions to be reported under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act.           

Okay, so maybe you're thinking -- but manure isn't hazardous! I just got a truckload of horse manure or chicken litter from my neighbor. And I'm going to till it into my garden and boy are my cucumbers going to take off next year!

In this case, it's all about quantity -- multiple studies have demonstrated that when farms collect tons of untreated manure in one place it releases pollutants into air (PDF) and water (sub req'd) that are deleterious to human health. And contrary to what factory farm advocates tell you, the EPA, if it ever did decide to consider manure hazardous, would not be giving Superfund status to a 60-cow dairy in Wisconsin or California organic farmer applying manure as grapevine fertilizer.

Rather, it might choose to classify as toxic giant spill areas, like the New River in North Carolina, which, way back in 1995, was subject to a 25.8 million gallon manure flood, as Rolling Stone reporter Jeff Tietz reported in a 2008 story for the magazine:

 

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.

 

Regulating manure as a hazardous substance would also make it so giant animal facilities (we probably shouldn't even call them farms) are required to report their air emissions.  And while the health implications of emissions from large Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs is still an emerging field of study, researchers have documented illness and even death stemming from exposures to large quantities of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide from factory farms, and over 300 different kinds of volatile organic compounds have been identified coming off of swine facilities.

The emergence of the Simpson-sponsored "shit ain't toxic" bill at this time points to fears that the Obama EPA might actually fulfill one of the candidate's campaign promises and crack down on pollution from large animal operations -- a promise that some say helped him win in the Iowa primaries. (Iowa ranks first in the country in its number of hog CAFOs)

It isn't the first time politicians have rushed to the aid of the "family farms" they say will be hurt by supposed regulatory overreach. Similar bills attempting to legally establish manure's benign nature popped up in 2005 and 2006. Although they didn't go anywhere, the Bush-era EPA stepped up and said they wouldn't apply Superfund to CAFOs.

Obama's EPA may step up to the regulatory plate. But if they do, be prepared to watch the manure fly.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is the online editor at High Country News.

Image of a manure lagoon in California courtesy the author.