Last week, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals nullified a Bush-era regulation that gave something of a free pass to factory farms that pollute the air and water. The regulation wrongly exempted factory farms from any obligation to report releases of toxic air emissions, including ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, which can cause so many problems for animals and for homeowners sharing the same drinking and breathing resources with the massive animal operations. The HSUS and a coalition of public interest groups filed suit, challenging the regulatory exemption, arguing that it violated the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation & Liability Act. The Circuit Court found EPA doesn’t have “carte blanche to ignore the statute[s] whenever it decides the reporting requirements aren’t worth the trouble.” As a result, factory farms are now required to report their dangerous air emissions, and there will be more opportunity for citizens and public interest groups to expose the harm that factory farms cause to humans, animals, and the environment.
It’s a timely ruling in light of two cases pending in two of the three biggest pig-producing states – Minnesota and North Carolina. As the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported today, residents and neighbors in Todd County filed suit in 2014, with the assistance of HSUS lawyers and concerned local attorneys, alleging that a massive gestation crate confinement facility with 4,000 pigs constituted a legal nuisance. But now the state legislature is attempting to pass a bill protecting factory farms from being sued for the nuisance and danger they present to rural communities. As reported by the Star Tribune, a neighbor of the facility “told legislators the dust and smell became so bad that her youngest son began having terrifying asthma attacks. ‘“He couldn’t play outside, he couldn’t wait for the bus,’” she said. Then, after her son had an attack so severe they feared they couldn’t get to the hospital in time, they moved.” Many other local residents cannot afford to leave and are forced to simply endure the smell and noise from the facility, including neighbor Joel Walsh, who explained: “In our backyard, we have a couple of apple trees,” but she “couldn’t hardly stand to pick because on the other side of those trees was where they had their dead bodies. The smell was so bad.”
The Minnesota case was set to go to trial this week, but the trial has been continued until later this year. A similar case filed by HSUS attorneys against an even larger gestation crate factory farm in North Carolina challenges another sweeping federal exemption from pollution reporting for massive animal confinement facilities. Despite attempts by the defendant to have the case dismissed on technical grounds, that matter is set to go to trial next year.
The whole factory farming system is showing cracks under the weight of the problems it spawns. Air quality and water quality problems in communities are just two consequence of their operations. An even less discussed problem in factory farming is our government’s response and massive taxpayer spending to contain disease outbreaks in confinement facilities for chicken and turkey flocks. In 2014-2015, during the highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreak in commercial poultry, the disease spread rapidly, and the response was massive “depopulation” actions from state and federal personnel. During the outbreak, agents killed more than 48 million birds across 15 states in 223 facilities. The bulk of the birds were killed in Iowa (32 million) and Minnesota (nine million). The cost of the outbreak was estimated at $3.3 billion (starting to be “real money” in the words of Sen. Everett Dirksen) and 18 trading partners imposed bans on the shipment of U.S. poultry and products and another 38 imposed partial restrictions. In other words, this was a serious issue for the birds, the factory farms, and for taxpayers.
In a follow-up investigation, it was determined that the virus was so infectious and spread so rapidly that the old methods of “depopulation” were too slow. It was proposed as a new goal that, once a poultry facility was determined to be infected, all the birds in the facility had to be killed within 24 to 48 hours to prevent the spread of the virus to other facilities. The American Veterinary Medical Association, the leading trade association for veterinarians, has now produced draft guidelines for how mass depopulation (of hundreds of thousands if not millions of birds) might be achieved within 24 to 48 hours. We can sympathize with those involved in producing these draft guidelines. On the one hand, they are asked to prescribe a response to massive public health threats involving highly pathogenic bird flu strains (outlined in great detail by my former colleague, Dr Michael Greger, in his 2006 book on bird flu). On the other, how does one humanely kill hundreds of thousands of birds within 24 hours?
The AVMA favored public health concerns over humane treatment by approving Ventilation System Shutdown (VSD) to kill the birds in place (literally lock the doors and shut off all air systems so the indoor air gets so hot that the animals suffocate) or burial alive leading to suffocation in a pit covered by dirt, among other methods. Members of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association considered these options and decided that they could not endorse either method. Our veterinarians acknowledge that it’s a terrible dilemma once these pathogens are unleashed because if they spread, millions more animals will die, because of the effect of the disease or as a consequence of the “control” efforts. But sanctioning demonstrably inhumane methods is a non-starter with people who’ve taken an oath to protect animals from distress and cruelty.
Here again, the real culprit is the structural system of factory farming that confines enormous numbers of mammals and birds who are uniquely vulnerable when something goes wrong (whether there’s a tornado, a failure in a cooling system, or an introduced pathogen). The whole system must change. And the immediate question is, why should adjacent communities and taxpayers have to bear the costs of foreseeable problems not of their making and that are almost an inevitable consequence of putting too many vulnerable beings in a single place? Tens of thousands, or even millions, of animals are unmanageable once something goes wrong.
Every veterinary student at graduation now swears to “use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.” This oath has its share of inherent conflicts, but some practices are simply outside the realm of acceptability, even in an emergency response. We are very pleased that our affiliate, the HSVMA, acknowledged the need to promote public health but not to subordinate animal welfare to other important imperatives in the conduct of veterinary work.