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Know the West

The West's lax rules draw hog factories


Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories.

Factory hog farms have followed the same trail blazed more than a century ago by American pioneers. The farms started nearly a decade ago in the heart of pig country - Iowa - and in the heart of chicken country - North Carolina. Now they have moved west into Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.

The hogs are on the move, according to Melissa Elliot of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, because of two words: lax regulations.

"When the corporations ran into resistance from citizens in the Midwest, they said, 'Heck, we'll move somewhere where there's less people, less regulations and still an ample supply of corn,' " says Elliot.

In Colorado, running a hog farm doesn't even require a state permit. Elliot says state regulators don't do any monitoring of the sites to ensure that waste doesn't contaminate groundwater.

"It's a complaint-driven system," says Elliot. "If you called the state water-quality people, they would tell you, 'we don't know where the hog farms are, but we regulate them.' That doesn't give the public any confidence at all."

Elliot says her group is pushing the Water Quality Control Commission to revise rules for hog farms, much as Wyoming has done. Her group wants several changes, including the institution of a permit system and bonding requirement for any clean-ups.

"Every other industry - whether it's mining or home construction - has to post a bond. Hog farms should, too," says Elliot. "This isn't agriculture, it's industry."

No doubt, a 10,000 sow corporate hog operation owned by a distant corporation is a far different creature than the mom-and-pop farms that rely on the reproductive abilities of several dozen to a hundred sows. Pigs that once lived outdoors spend their entire lives in giant buildings standing on concrete grates that allow their waste to drop into giant vats below. With these bigger operations comes more of everything: more uniformity of meat, more pounds to sell and more waste.

Small-scale pig farms can use waste in their fields as manure. But torrents of waste pose major problems, threatening ground and surface waters. Most companies flush the pig houses out with water, creating a slurry that increases the volume of waste but also makes it easier to manage. The slurry is held in open earthen tanks, such as the one Wyoming Premium Farms has dug in Wheatland. The industry calls them lagoons; critics call them cesspools.

A series of ugly spills brought national attention to the environmental and health hazards of these lagoons. When it rains long and hard, the large, open containers can crack, leak or overflow, releasing thousands of gallons of slurry into nearby streams and potentially contaminating the groundwater. That's what happened two years ago in North Carolina, when 25 million gallons of waste spilled and killed a 17-mile stretch of river.

No one really knows what effect such a large concentration of nitrogen would have on a groundwater source, but they do know it would be awfully hard to fix. As one opponent puts it: "You don't need a Ph.D. to know that massive swine operations represent a tremendous risk to groundwater."