Factory Farm Runoff Is Polluting Lake Erie, But CAFO Sewers Are Not the Answer

Laura Orlando July 24, 2015

A satellite photo of the Great Lakes shows Lake Erie's toxic algae bloom in 2011. Runoff from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are making matters worse.

The Great Lakes — Supe­ri­or, Michi­gan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario — are mag­nif­i­cent inland seas that were once as clear as rain­wa­ter. Now each is pol­lut­ed, but Lake Erie, the small­est, by vol­ume, is in the most trou­ble. Its west­ern basin is heav­i­ly indus­tri­al­ized, but the lake’s great­est threat is from the mas­sive influx of organ­ic mate­r­i­al from fer­til­iz­er runoff, and the urine and feces from large con­cen­tra­tions of ani­mals in fac­to­ry farms. These nutri­ents don’t belong in the lake’s aquat­ic ecosys­tem. They kill fish by snatch­ing up oxy­gen as organ­ic mate­r­i­al decays and cause tox­ic algae blooms. If unchecked, excess nutri­ents can change the ecosys­tem so much that the lake no longer sup­ports aquat­ic life.

Sandy Bihn, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the envi­ron­men­tal group Lake Erie Water­keep­er, has been work­ing for decades to clean up Lake Erie. She’s been doing yeoman’s work, but she got it wrong when she told the Tole­do Blade in July that in order to clean up the lake, farm ani­mal waste will have to be indus­tri­al­ly treat­ed like human waste.

Exc­re­ta from con­fined ani­mal feed­ing oper­a­tions (CAFOs) and fer­til­iz­er runoff, pri­mar­i­ly from nitro­gen-based petro­chem­i­cals, are both root­ed in indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture, and both are best addressed by chang­ing agri­cul­tur­al prac­tices, not by bor­row­ing tech­niques from the fun­da­men­tal­ly dys­func­tion­al sewage treat­ment indus­try to clean up” mas­sive nutri­ent loads.

Sew­ers are a health and envi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter. At great cost to nat­ur­al resources (fresh­wa­ter) and pub­lic funds, they have moved human exc­re­ta, indus­tri­al waste, road runoff, and hos­pi­tal dis­charges from one place to anoth­er: away from homes and busi­ness­es to receiv­ing bod­ies of water. The his­tor­i­cal pub­lic health ben­e­fit of mov­ing human exc­re­ta away from peo­ple, and so curb­ing cholera, dysen­tery, typhoid, and oth­er dis­eases caused by pathogens that live in our guts and trav­el in water, is unas­sail­able. But we have swapped these enteric dis­eases for oth­ers with slow­er mech­a­nisms of phys­i­o­log­i­cal dys­func­tion, such as Parkinson’s dis­ease and cancer.

Today, with the most advanced” waste­water treat­ment afford­ed by indus­tri­al­ized nations, all of the receiv­ing bod­ies of water — lakes, rivers, streams, and oceans — are affect­ed by nutri­ent and chem­i­cal pol­lu­tion from sewage out­fall. The best avail­able tech­nol­o­gy” in waste­water treat­ment plants has not changed much since the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, but the inputs have: hun­dreds of thou­sands of chem­i­cals — like nano­ma­te­ri­als, per­flouori­nat­ed com­pounds (PFCs), phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals, bromi­nat­ed flame retar­dants, per­chlo­rate, and pes­ti­cides. As for the out­put? Our waters pol­lut­ed by bil­lions of gal­lons of nutri­ent-rich, chem­i­cal-laden waste­water — with some bac­te­ria killed by an enor­mous amount of chlo­rine added before dis­charge — and sewage sludge, an always tox­ic end-prod­uct of waste­water treatment.

CAFO wastes are not manure.” The term manure has been used for mil­len­ni­um to con­note an agri­cul­tur­al­ly essen­tial fer­til­iz­er from ani­mal exc­re­ta. It’s always been asso­ci­at­ed with prop­er scale. Large indus­tri­al farms with thou­sands of con­fined ani­mals are a new sys­tem out­side of that scale.

Lake Erie has a prob­lem. But the way to address it is not by help­ing the indus­tri­al enti­ties that have a hand in its ori­gins con­tin­ue with busi­ness as usu­al. Estab­lish­ing sew­ers for CAFO waste will only make it eas­i­er for agribusi­ness to add more ani­mals to a bad sys­tem while con­cen­trat­ing the nutri­ent load and phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals (such as antibi­otics wide­ly used in indus­tri­al ani­mal oper­a­tions) to then put back into the lake after expen­sive and inef­fec­tu­al treat­ment.”

Lau­ra Orlan­do is a mem­ber of the Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times Board of Edi­tors. She is a civ­il engi­neer and teach­es in the envi­ron­men­tal health depart­ment at the Boston Uni­ver­si­ty School of Pub­lic Health. Lau­ra grew up on a farm near Ben­ton Har­bor, Michi­gan. She is a grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and the Har­vard Kennedy School of Government.
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