Uncle Sam's Next Environmental Target: Farms New Federal Rules Cite Animal Waste as Major Threat to America's Waterways

By Brad Knickerbocker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 17, 1998 | Go to article overview

Uncle Sam's Next Environmental Target: Farms New Federal Rules Cite Animal Waste as Major Threat to America's Waterways


Brad Knickerbocker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


On his way to market, this little piggy can make a big mess. So can the millions of cows and chickens that produce tons of waste before ending up on dinner plates around the country.

As a result, Uncle Sam is about to crack down on the farm industry.

"Animal waste is a national problem that demands a national solution," says Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, senior Democrat on the Senate agriculture committee.

Senator Harkin and US Rep. George Miller (D) of California are sponsoring legislation that would set strict limits on animal-waste pollution. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) this week will announce new regulations designed to clean up farmyards.

In all, farm animals raised to become meat account for 61 million tons of waste a year, according to the USDA. This is many times the amount of human waste produced annually in the United States. In the Yakima Valley of Washington State, for example, there are now nearly 100,000 dairy cows and heifers, which produce as much waste as a city of 2.5 million people.

Rebecca Wodders, president of the conservation group American Rivers, calls factory farms "a growing national blight."

"In the past two decades, we have made significant progress in cleaning up waterways and putting a stop to major industrial sources of pollution," says Ms. Wodders. "Now we are faced with a threat so pervasive it could send us back to the days when rivers, in many cases, were nothing more than cesspools."

The conservation group's annual list of 10 most endangered rivers this year includes three waterways threatened by cattle, poultry, and hog farms: the Pocomoke River in Maryland, the Apple River in Wisconsin and Illinois, and the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., and three surrounding states.

The problem is that, whereas urban sewer systems now treat most human waste to the point where it is environmentally benign, waste from farms is not treated. Typically, such waste is either stored on the factory farms that are replacing family operations (and thereby concentrating the problem) or spread on fields as fertilizer to help produce grain to feed livestock in a kind of mass recycling effort. In either case, it also is fouling waterways and killing wildlife.

Major pollution source

Earlier this summer, the Ecological Society of America, a scientific research and education organization in Washington, named livestock operations as one of the major causes of "nonpoint-source pollution," or pollution spread over large areas rather than coming from a single sewage pipe or smokestack. …

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