Manure Spills: The Environmental Damage We Don’t Hear About

Though environmental damage that’s caused by incidents like the 2010 BP oil spill receive national attention, more consistent – and sometimes larger – manure spills go unacknowledged.

Livestock Waste

Manure spills from livestock feed receive little public attention, but produce a large amount of environmental damage.

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What exactly is in our food? In The Meaty Truth (Skyhorse Publishing, 2014), authors Shushana Castle and Amy-Lee Goodman examine the American population’s food supply, going into detail about how the current food supply is contaminated with toxins, antibiotics, untested growth hormones, ammonia and animal manure. This excerpt, which discusses the lack of awareness surrounding waste and manure spills at livestock feed lots, is from Chapter 2, “America the Beautiful: From Cesspool to Shining Cesspool.”

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The Environmental Damage Caused by Livestock Waste and Manure Spills

In 2010, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico made the front pages of newspapers for weeks, as images of the disaster took over the nightly news. The CEO of BP was put under tremendous scrutiny for the accident that sent 4.9 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. There was a public outcry, and hundreds of groups helped to clean up the spill. The BP oil spill was larger than the infamous 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, which impacted 1,300 miles of ocean and killed an astounding 250,000 birds. Why are we talking about oil spills?

While oil spills receive nationwide coverage and public outcry, consistent lagoon spills occur all the time with zero nationwide and limited, if any, local coverage. Some of the lagoon spills are comparable to, if not bigger than, the Exxon Valdez spill. For instance, in 1995 a 120,000 square-foot lagoon at Oceanview Farms in North Carolina burst, sending twenty-five million gallons of feces and wastewater into the New River. The spill killed at least ten million fish and polluted 350,000 coastal acres of shellfish habitat. Dead fish began lining the banks of the river within two hours of the spill. The manure sludge was so dense it took two months for the sludge to make the sixteen-mile stretch down the New River to the ocean.

While the Oceanview Farms spill is double the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and considered the largest environmental spill, we are pretty sure most Americans have never heard of it. Neither, at the time, did citizens who were swimming in the river downstream. The government officials failed to warn them of the hog crap contaminated with E. coli heading their way. We highly doubt the same protocol would have been followed if it had been an oil spill. The Oceanview Farms spill has gone down in history as one of the greatest environmental disasters, which killed every living creature in its path in the North Carolina waterways. The Oceanview spill was bad enough, but that same year, three lagoons in North Carolina burst within two weeks of each other. One smaller lagoon spill occurred on the same day as the Oceanview spill in Sampson County. The other spill in Duplin County released nine million gallons of chicken waste into Limestone Creek, which is a tributary of the Northeast Cape Fear River. In comparison to oil spills, which rarely happen at the level of the BP and Exxon Valdez spills, lagoon spills are consistent, frequent, and pose comparable environmental damage with less coverage and support.

The Frequency of Spills and Pollution Incidents at Livestock Feed Lots

According to the National Resources Defense Council, “from 1995 to 1998, one thousand spills or pollution incidents occurred at livestock feed-lots in ten states and two hundred manure-related fish kills resulted in the death of thirteen million fish.” Not much has changed since that time.

In 2001, an Illinois contract farmer refused to lower his lagoon by at least a million gallons of manure. Instead, the owner, Dave Inskeep, decided to fill a nearby ravine that was dammed with a ten-foot berm with two million gallons of the manure. The lagoon didn’t hold and sent millions of gallons of feces rushing into the Kickapoo Creek, which joins the Illinois River. It was one of the worst avoidable spills in Illinois history. Fast forward to today, and we can see that for some reason we are not taking lessons from the past when it comes to manure spills. For example, did anyone hear about two three-hundred-thousand-gallon manure spills in Wisconsin in 2013? One of these massive spills, while an “accident,” produced a mile-long trail of animal waste. Why did this accident happen? There weren’t proper berms in the holding tank and pipes. Apparently it just wasn’t cost effective to install them, even though manure spills create devastating and sometimes-irreversible environmental damage. What is even more frustrating is that the corporation responsible for this mess only received a slap on the wrist and a thank you for alerting the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to the problem, despite the fact that this spill was illegal.

If only the cycle of spilled crap would end. But the trouble is manure spills are becoming ever more frequent. In fact, there were a total of seventy-six manure spills in 2013 alone in Wisconsin, totaling more than one million gallons of manure. This is a 65 percent increase in manure spills from 2012. In an attempt to provide some assurance, Kevin Erb, the manure specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Extension, proudly claimed that the volume of manure spilled “is minute compared to the amount of manure cows produce. The spill total for 2013 is less than 1 percent of all the waste produced by dairy cattle in Wisconsin.” This news somehow isn’t as consoling to us as Mr. Erb probably hoped.

Worse is the industry’s attitude to the manure spills. According to Tom Bauman, the Coordinator of Agriculture Runoff at the DNR, “Spills are going to happen.” We don’t agree with this laissez-faire attitude when CAFOs do not have to exist at all. Spills have lasting consequences. After a manure spill in Pennsylvania in 2013, the city had to close down a children’s playground indefinitely because salmonella and other pathogens were simply not decreasing. Since we would never allow children to play in a playground of crap, why are we okay with eating it in our food?

Fortunately, a coalition in Iowa, sick of constant manure spills, decided to take a stand and sue The Maschhoffs, one of the largest pork-owning networks in the country. The coalition filed the suit for violating the Clean Water Act after the fifth manure spill since 2007. Already Iowa has 630 polluted waterways from manure and climbing. While The Maschhoffs claims innocence and states it is a “good neighbor,” its multiplicity of spills speaks otherwise. Its Keosauqua Sow Unit has dumped more than twenty thousand gallons of manure into the Des Moines River and surrounding tributaries.

The Maschhoffs has provided the typical-industry response by stating that this claim filed in November 2013 is without merit. And yet as Lori Nelson, the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund board president, stated, “Every factory farm in Iowa is a ticking time bomb that could have a spill at any time, and the DNR needs to start holding them accountable for polluting our waterways by issuing them Clean Water Act permits so they have to follow stronger environmental standards.” Why are we not regulating “ticking time bombs”? Instead of accepting the fate of manure spills, is it such a novel idea to prevent them or even find real solutions?


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Meaty Truth, by Shushana Castle and Amy-Lee Goodman, published by Skyhorse Publishing, 2014. Buy this book from our store: The Meaty Truth.