For the past few months, Big Sky Cheese's special use permit application has been under review by both the Zoning Board of Adjustment and the Cascade County Board of Commissioners.
On Tuesday, Montanans For Responsible Land Use filed a lawsuit against the Cascade County Board of Commissioners for what it alleges is a violation of public process.
By Abby Ford for the Kirksville Daily Express
Aged red theater seating and a mixed crowd sat above Take Root Cafe on a Tuesday evening and viewed “Right to Harm.” The new documentary examines the devastating public health impact factory farming has on many disadvantaged citizens. Locals and college students, farmers and cityfolk alike all booed and cheered along with the heart-rending true stories played out on screen.
The villain of the movie? Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, also known as CAFOs. The film described a CAFO as an industrial-sized farming operation usually producing cows, hogs, or chickens. These animals spend days confined in an area without vegetation, crowded in steel boxes. The extreme amount of waste (369 million gallons nationwide) these animals produce is often overwhelming to the local environment and its citizens.
The audience nodded along and scoffed in sympathy as the film depicted story after story of loss and civil rights violations. In Wisconsin, dairy mega farms contaminate local well water with pathogens like salmonella. In North Carolina, citizens were misted with liquid manure from hog farm spray fields built right beside their properties. In almost every state in the continental U.S., the film depicts, there are people unable to breathe, eat, and work in a safe manner because of a local CAFO.
In the film, Sonia Lopez recalls the awful stench surrounding her home after a local CAFO, Hickman Farms, built near her property. The smell and water pollution overwhelmed her family. Her son became violently ill and her daughters quickly followed. Vomiting, rashes, headaches, and more all detrimental to her children’s growth and way of life.
“I wanted to stay here. That was my dream,” Sonia Lopez said, tears in her eyes. “I guess it was just a dream.”
The crowd was infuriated and sympathetic. A woman in the back row of the small theater furiously knitted a scarf as the film showed family after family suffering under this strain.
The film also depicted communities who banded together to successfully fend off CAFOs. In North Carolina, citizens have filed a lawsuit against Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the local mega farm in their area. According to “Right to Harm,” community organization and local involvement is key to saving towns from this civil rights threat.
The film commented, “Democracy, voting, is not a part time gig...it shows what can be done when you show up.”
The end of the film was met with enthusiastic applause. A panel then convened including local farmers, an elected official, activists and members of the organizations who brought this event to the community, including Truman States College Democrats, College Republicans, Missouri Coalition for the Environment, and Missouri Rural Crisis Center.
The panel discussed the effect that CAFOs have on local people and what can happen if communities remain passive. Toxic smell, unsafe drinking water and contaminated land all could contribute to forcing people out of their homes, their communities.
“A CAFO could be built right outside the city limits,” Adair County Commissioner Mark Thompson said.
Senate Bill 391, known as the CAFO bill, was also discussed along with the pending lawsuit against it. If passed as is, 391 could nullify existing local ordinances surrounding factory farming. In Iowa, there exists few CAFO regulations and, originally, a lack of local pushback. Presently, the panel said, there are over 10,000 CAFOs in the state. Comparatively, Missouri has a little over 500. Regulations and local involvement are the difference.
The panel stressed the importance of political involvement and raising awareness as a means to fend off advancing factory farms.
Jeff Jones, an eighth-generation farmer and activist, said, “We will not be beat off our land.”
Audience members were encouraged to ask questions and some asked, as non-farmers, what they can do to help. Ed Smith, from Missouri Coalition for the Environment, gave this advice:
“Know where your food comes from and know where your elected officials stand on the issues,” he said.
By: Bart Pfankuch for South Dakota News Watch
The newly expanded Agropur cheese plant in Lake Norden, S.D., is facing a possible fine from state regulators after tests showed the plant’s wastewater that is dumped directly into the Big Sioux River violated state pollution limits in four categories.
Tests of the wastewater released in the expanded plant’s first two months of operation showed nine violations for excessive amounts of nitrates and ammonia and high levels of alkalinity and conductivity, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The violations came after the plant underwent a $252 million expansion over the past year that tripled its capacity to process milk into cheese. Agropur, a Canadian-owned firm that operates nine production plants in five U.S. states, spent about $28 million on a new wastewater-treatment system to handle wastes from the expanded plant.
Officials from the plant, the state and area water-management agencies were all disappointed with the early pollution violations.
“The data is showing they’ve had some violations and it was worse than I expected,” said Al Spangler, a water-treatment permit manager with the state Department of Environment & Natural Resources, which regulates industrial and municipal wastewater-treatment systems. “It’s not uncommon to have some violations at the beginning and after such a large industrial expansion, but the requirements are that they have to be meeting the limits at the beginning of their discharge and moving forward. They had violations on several different parameters, and we felt that we needed to take action right away.”
Spangler said the state is in the process of working with Agropur to correct the problems and is still determining what financial penalty the plant may face.
The violations come after a lengthy debate over issuance of a new wastewater permit for the expanded facility. Initially, the state did not plan to place limits on nitrate levels in the discharge water, but after an outcry by area water-management officials, the state enacted limits on nitrates, among the most worrisome of pollutants in the Big Sioux River. The allowable limits of nitrates – a maximum of 31.5 parts per million released on any single day and a monthly average of 18 ppm – were significantly higher than water managers requested, and still the plant was unable to meet them in its first two months of operation. Several agencies and individuals who commented during the permitting process argued for a limit of 10 ppm of nitrates, which is the level considered safe for drinking water.
“We stood up and didn’t approve of the discharge permit, and while we’re glad the state listened to us and created a standard, now [Agropur has] already violated it,” said Martin Jarrett, general manager of the Big Sioux Community Water System that lies just downriver from the Agropur discharge site. “It really is in the state’s court now and we’re all waiting to see what actions they take.”
The plant had a 40 ppm nitrate release on one day in May, federal data show. The plant also had three violations of ammonia-discharge limits, including a monthly average in April that was nearly five times higher than the allowable limit, and a discharge on one day that month that was nearly seven times the limit. The plant was also barely within limits on parameters known as chronic toxicity and total dissolved solids during April and May.
High nitrate levels can restrict oxygen absorption in humans who ingest polluted water and are especially dangerous to infants, who can suffer from methemoglobinemia, also known as “blue baby syndrome.” High ammonia levels can kill fish and other life forms that live in the water.
State officials and regional water managers say the potential impact of the Agropur violations is minimal at this time due to abnormally high water levels and flow rates in the Big Sioux River, which help dilute pollutants. No drinking-water systems in northeast South Dakota pull water directly from the Big Sioux River, but several systems rely on the aquifer that is fed by waters from the river.
“It doesn’t take much of a calculation to figure out that 70 percent of the water in my wells comes from the river, so what comes down that river does really affect me and my customers,” said Jarrett, whose system provides drinking water from the Big Sioux Aquifer to about 10,000 people in Lake and Moody counties. “Historically, if you keep loading the Big Sioux River with high nitrate levels, if you’re putting in 18 ppm per month, it will persist longer and become an issue with the drinking water.”
Tim Czmowski, a lifelong South Dakota resident who serves as vice president of Midwest operations for Agropur, said the company has taken swift and extensive action to prevent future wastewater violations.
“Agropur takes its environmental responsibility very seriously and we have put forth a great amount of effort in order to comply with state limits,” Czmowski said. “I’m from South Dakota, and I have a personal responsibility to make sure that we do comply.”
Czmowski said the company has been working closely with the state and numerous experts to refine and improve its wastewater-treatment processes.
“It’s a process, and we’re very confident we will come into compliance,” he said. “I feel that we’re on a good path, and obviously the state of South Dakota is aware of every detail.”
Small town, major expansion
Agropur invested $252 million to roughly triple the production capacity of its cheese plant in Lake Norden from processing about 3.3 million pounds of milk per day to more than 9 million pounds per day, Czmowski said. Production has ramped up since the expanded plant began operating this spring but will not likely reach full capacity for two to four years, he said. The plant produces cheeses that include mozzarella, provolone, Romano, asiago, Muenster, Parmesan, Monterey Jack and cheddar.
As part of the expansion, the company planned to spend $24 million on a new wastewater-treatment plant, but Czmowski said that in order to meet state permit requirements, Agropur had to spend close to $28 million. The company constructed a 14.5-mile pipeline to carry treated wastewater to a discharge site directly into the Big Sioux River about three miles northwest of Estelline.
The plant expansion, described by state officials one of the largest single industrial projects in state history, is expected to generate a $1 billion overall annual economic impact and will allow the plant to hire about 125 new employees beyond its existing workforce of 225.
Obtaining more milk from dairies in South Dakota and other states is one challenge to operating at full capacity, Czmowski said. The plant now needs milk from about 85,000 more cows than were producing for Agropur prior to the expansion, which will create economic opportunities for existing or new dairy farmers across the state and region, he said.
The plant in Lake Norden, a Hamlin County town of fewer than 500 people, was built in the 1950s and has had different ownership over the years, with Agropur purchasing the plant in 2014, Czmowski said.
Formerly, the plant used a series of manmade wetlands to filter its treated wastewater that eventually dumped into a tributary of the Big Sioux River. The plant had a strong track record of meeting pollution limits with the former system, which is a main reason the state initially felt comfortable not placing nitrate limits on the expanded plant’s wastewater, Spangler said.
The new treatment system will feature many of the same elements of the old system but also use a new anaerobic processing system that uses several technologies to further screen out and remove pollutants.
The old permit considered Agropur a “non-discharge” plant because wastes were not directly dumped into a flowing waterway. Now, the plant is allowed to dump up to 2 million gallons of treated wastewater per day directly into the Big Sioux River, one of the state’s most prominent rivers but also the most polluted. Early discharges from the new system have averaged just under 1 million gallons per day.
The Big Sioux River runs north-south through the most populated portion of South Dakota and forms the famed waterfall in downtown Sioux Falls that gave the city its name. Along its route, the river is subjected to daily dumping of treated wastes from several municipalities, numerous cheesemakers and other industrial plants, and also receives significant polluted runoff from farms. The city of Sioux Falls and the Smithfield pork-processing plant combined dump about 20 million gallons of treated human and industrial wastewaters into the river each day near downtown Sioux Falls.
Construction is still ongoing at the Agropur cheese plant in Lake Norden, S.D., which has seen its milk production capacity triple as part of a $252 million expansion. The plant violated pollution limits in its treated wastewater during its first few months of operation. Photo: Bart Pfankuch, South Dakota News Watch
Concerns raised by numerous groups
Water managers along the route say that although the addition of pollutants from Agropur make up only a small portion of contaminants in the river, the cumulative effect of increased dumping is worrisome.
“We need to be concerned,” said Jay Gilbertson, manager of the East Dakota Water Development District in Brookings. “The fact that the impact of that violation on the river was inconsequential due to high river flows now isn’t the point. The Big Sioux does not have an unlimited capacity to assimilate whatever we dump into it.”
Other commenters noted that when flows in the Big Sioux reach historic lows, as they did during an extended drought in recent years, the Agropur discharges at the maximum allowable level could make up about 60 percent of the water flow in the river.
About a dozen individuals and groups filed formal comments to the state during the permitting process for the Agropur expansion, most raising concerns over pollution impacts on the Big Sioux River and also over the lack of nitrate limits. Commenters included eight water-management or -protection groups but also the state Game, Fish & Parks Department, which pointed out that the Big Sioux River in the discharge area is already impaired by high concentrations of E.coli and is impaired downstream owing to E.coli, mercury and suspended solids.
The EPA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also urged the state to impose pollution limits. The wildlife service noted, and News Watch confirmed, that Agropur plants in Idaho, Iowa and Wisconsin have had wastewater-permit violations for exceeding limits of phosphorous, residual chlorine, suspended solids, and oxygen demand, and also for improper reporting of data.
Czmowski said efforts to build and employ its new wastewater-treatment process were made more difficult by an unusually cold winter and wet spring in South Dakota.
“We did have very good success, but as normal start-up conditions occur, as we were running, we did have some mechanical failures that caused the treatment processes to be interrupted,” Czmowski said. “We fell out of balance and some violations occurred, which we take full responsibility for.”
Czmowski said plant officials have held almost daily conference calls with a team of employees since the violations occurred to improve the wastewater treatment, resulting in two or three minor improvements each day.
“We’ve made hundreds of adjustments and changes and invested in new equipment, we’ve rented equipment and we’ve contacted the best in the industry to tap their professional expertise,” Czmowski said. “We are also working with the state, and I would say that out of all the operations Agropur has, the standards that have been put forth by the state of South Dakota, they are a tall order and we will do whatever we can to meet them.”
Spangler said he plans to tour the Lake Norden plant later this month to check on progress and try to ensure future violations do not occur.
He said the public should be aware that the state’s regulatory role is one based both on protection of the environment and creating an economic environment that is conducive to industry and employment.
“In the DENR, our mission is to protect the environment without causing serious impact to economic development,” Spangler said. “In any permit we issue or anything we do, we have to consider both the environment and economic development, which is an important balancing act.”
In addition to fines, Agropur could face revocation of its wastewater permit if violations were to continue for an extended period of time, though that action is rare, Spangler said.
by Sacoby Wilson, Assistant Professor of Applied Environmental Health , University of Maryland
Sacoby Wilson received funding for research on hog CAFOs from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National institutes of Health from 1998-2005. As U.S. livestock farming becomes more industrial, it is changing rural life. Many people now live near Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) – large facilities that can house thousands of animals in close quarters. Neighbors have to contend with noxious odors, toxic emissions and swarms of insects, and have had little success in obtaining relief – but this could be changing. On April 26, Murphy Brown LLC, a division of Smithfield Foods, was required to pay US
$75,000 in compensatory damages and $50 million in punitive damages in a nuisance lawsuit
filed by ten residents of Bladen County, North Carolina over impacts from a nearby hog farm.
On June 29, another North Carolina jury awarded $25 million to a couple in Duplin County in a similar lawsuit against Smithfield Foods. Other cases are pending in North Carolina and Iowa. Smithfield Foods is the largest hog processor and producer in the world, so these verdicts are major victories for people organizing against industrialized animal agriculture. Based on my experience studying environmental health at the community level, I see them as breakthroughs after decades of government failure to protect rural communities from negative impacts of CAFOs.
Threats to health and the environment
Iowa and North Carolina are the largest pork-producing states in the nation. Hog farms generated US$6.8 billion in sales in Iowa in 2012 and $2.9 billion in North Carolina. They also produce massive quantities of waste. Unlike human biosolids, which must meet regulatory standards for pathogen levels, vector attraction reduction and metal content, no such standards are required for CAFO waste. Studies have linked exposure to hog farm emissions, such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, to symptoms including increased stress, anxiety, fatigue, mucous membrane irritation, respiratory conditions, reduced lung function and elevated blood pressure.
Hog waste can contaminate ground and surface water reserves through runoff, leaching and rupturing of storage facilities. High quantities of nitrates and phosphates, from both animal waste and fertilizers used to grow feed, can also contaminate rivers and streams.
Bacteria and residual antibiotics present in hog waste have the potential to cause acute illness and infection, as well as antibiotic resistance. Rural communities are especially vulnerable to water contamination because many rely on private well water, which is not regulated by government agencies.
Impacts beyond the farm
The Bladen County lawsuit charged that waste management techniques employed by Kinlaw Farm, a local hog producer for Murphy Brown LLC, put neighbors’ health at risk and severely lowered their quality of life. The farm stored liquid manure in on-site lagoons and sprayed it on local fields as fertilizer.
High volumes of waste and frequent mishandling exposed nearby residents to noxious odors. The lagoons attracted swarms of insects onto neighboring properties, and plaintiffs complained in the lawsuit that trucks packed with dead animals drove through the neighborhood at all hours of the day.
Such conditions characterize the lives of people who live close to CAFOs. People who cherish the freedom of rural life are anguished when pollution and overpowering smells make it impossible to perform everyday tasks and engage with their community. Many feel imprisoned within their own homes.
In May 2018 Shane Rogers, a former EPA and USDA environmental engineer, published an air quality investigation that provided evidence to support the nuisance lawsuit. Using samples collected from the air and exteriors of homes neighboring Kinlaw Farm, Rogers was able to isolate hog feces DNA at 14 of the 17 homes tested. All six of the dust samples collected from the air contained “tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of hog feces DNA particles.”
Based on such high concentrations, Rogers deemed it highly likely that these contaminants could enter the houses. The presence of fecal matter in homes may provide grounds for a trespassing claim, as it falls under the definition of a physical invasion of another person’s property. In this 2016 report, North Carolina residents suing Smithfield Foods describe conflicts with adjoining hog farms over waste disposal.
Pork producers respond
Although the North Carolina settlement is a major step forward for rural communities, the industry is pushing back. Smithfield Foods has condemned such lawsuits as “nothing more than a money grab by a big litigation machine.” The company asserts that because Kinlaw Farm fully complied with all federal, state and local laws and regulations, such lawsuits only threaten the livelihoods and economic prosperity of thousands of North Carolinians employed by the industry.
A few weeks after the April verdict, the judge reduced the settlement from $50.75 million to $3.25 million, pursuant to a North Carolina law which caps punitive damages at either three times the amount of compensatory damages awarded or $250,000. This allotment does not address community members’ suffering, and jurors were unaware of the law limiting punitive damages when they reached their decision.
In response to 23 nuisance cases filed by over 500 residents, the North Carolina legislature recently voted to expand its right-to-farm law, overriding Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto. These laws were originally designed to protect farms from people who moved in nearby and then complained about noise and odors. However, industries in some agricultural states have pushed legislatures to expand the statutes to make it harder to sue CAFOs.
An under-regulated industry
In my view, current measures in place to protect rural communities from factory farms are grossly insufficient. CAFOs have been defined as point sources of pollution under the Clean Water Act for over 40 years. This means they should have to obtain permits to discharge waste into river, streams or surface waters. But due to industry pushback, lobbying and privacy concerns, it is estimated that only 33 percent of CAFOs operated with such permits as of 2017.
Environmental advocates also contend that CAFOs qualify as stationary pollution source under the Clean Air Act. Instead, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has pursued a voluntary approach for more than a decade that centers on studying how to monitor CAFO air emissions.
In sum, I see governmental agencies as complicit within a system of production that prioritizes private interests rather than the well-being of communities and the environment. Research has shown that these operations disproportionately burden communities of color in rural North Carolina, so this is a major environmental justice issue.
In order for CAFOs and communities to coexist harmoniously, the entire structure of the present food system must change. In addition to strengthening regulations on factory farm emissions and discharges, I think regulators should provide incentives for CAFOs to invest in sustainable technologies and alternative waste management systems.
These farms should also be offered incentives to publicly report quality and safety data and expected impacts on host and nearby communities. This kind of information would increase rural residents’ negotiating power.
Given the Trump administration’s anti-regulatory slant and proposed budget cuts, the federal government is unlikely to lead in this area. However, the North Carolina verdicts and pending cases in Iowa could lead to greater industry transparency and empower more rural citizens to take action against CAFOs in their communities.
Crystal Mehdizadeh, a bachelor’s degree candidate in public health science at the University of Maryland-College Park, contributed to this article.