Animal Waste

The most significant threat to water resources across the U.S. now comes from nonpoint source pollution - pollution which does not come out of the end of a pipe. As efforts to reduce water pollution from factories and sewage treatment plants have succeeded, attention is now turning to the largest contributor to nonpoint pollution: agriculture. Current farming practices often result in the release of sediment, fertilizers, pesticides and animal wastes to local watersheds. Local impacts have often worsened as smaller family farms have been replaced by corporate operations housing thousands of animals in assembly-line conditions. These operations have multiplied in recent years, spreading into many states that lack adequate environmental controls. The estimated one billion tons of feces and urine produced each year by livestock, and the way in which it is treated, pose one of America's serious pollution threats.

The concentration of livestock in factory farms leads to a buildup of animal waste in the areas where these livestock operations reside. The enormous volumes of waste cannot be assimilated by natural processes, and therefore require special treatment. In the majority of cases, the systems used to treat animal waste are inadequate. Waste is pumped into open air pits called "lagoons", and from there, liquid manure is sprayed onto fields. The amount of waste applied often exceeds what the crops can take up, leaving the rest to escape into the air or runoff into surface waters. Such outdated and improper treatment of animal waste can lead to serious pollution problems. Improper collection and disposal of untreated animal waste can harm groundwater and human health. Nutrients and bacteria from animal waste can cause fish kills and harm shellfish in contaminated streams, creeks, and estuaries. In addition, dangerous and offensive odors and other air pollutants are also emitted, often making life for farm neighbors intolerable. Finally, because antibiotics are routinely used on factory farms (to compensate for unsanitary growing conditions and to promote slightly faster livestock growth), they promote development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria that are present in animal waste.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have attempted to develop a national strategy for controlling factory farm pollution. Unfortunately, this policy falls far short of addressing environmental and public health threats. Most notably, EPA's draft strategy would not require many factory farms to implement better pollution controls until the year 2005. The EPA has also come to an agreement with the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) on a voluntary compliance program to reduce the environmental threats to waterways posed by hog feeding operations. Voluntary programs and postponed controls will not solve the problems posed by animal waste, stronger environmental standards for factory farms are required.

Scorecard combines livestock population data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture with waste factors developed by the agricultural community to estimate the amount of animal waste that livestock operations produce. Due to limitations in available data, Scorecard cannot describe the waste management methods of specific livestock operations or evaluate the level of health or ecological risk that animal waste may pose in an area. Please review the Limits of Scorecard's Data on Livestock Operations.


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