Factory Farm Waste is Destroying Our Environment

Waste from factory farms is contaminating our environment to an alarming extent, but these farms are exempt from reporting requirements under the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. Thus, the true amount of damage being done remains a mystery.

It has been approximately one year since Hurricane Florence inflicted damage to the Carolinas. While the more obvious negative impacts include deaths, economic loss, and poverty, one repercussion that generally goes unnoticed was captured by satellite. Due to a surplus of rainfall caused by the storm, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in areas of low-elevation were completely flooded, causing animal waste to travel into nearby rivers and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean.

A CAFO is a form of livestock production in which many animals are confined into one area, creating large and dense amounts of waste in one localized area. CAFOs dispose animal waste by using it as fertilizer, burying it in large pits, or storing it in lagoons where sulfur-eating bacteria causes it to change colors to an unsightly pink.

When used on crops as fertilizer, only so much waste can be absorbed, causing the remainder of it to end up in the water system.  When the waste makes it to drinking water sources, it can create horrendous health consequences. E. coli, chemicals, growth hormones, and animal blood can leach into source water, causing negative health effects, such as birth defects and miscarriage. To make matters worse, when an area floods, the impact of animal waste is exacerbated.

In North Carolina, it is estimated that 10 billion gallons of animal waste are produced each year. Unfortunately, the key word here is ‘estimated,’ and the actual amount of waste produced is believed to be far greater. There is no specific federal agency put in place to collect reliable information on the size of CAFOs or the amount waste they are releasing—and the result of this is that CAFOs are not being held responsible for all of the damage they have caused.

To put things into perspective, one CAFO can produce as much waste as a U.S. city, but that city is required to have a wastewater treatment plan.

Stanford Professor Daniel Ho and student Cassandra Handan-Nader want to put an end to this, and they have started to do so by producing a computer algorithm which can help to put CAFOs on the map. Permits are required for CAFOs releasing waste directly into federally regulated waters, but these permits are not required for operations that discharge pollutants unintentionally–for example, if there was a break in a manure tank or a hurricane. The result of this is elevated pollution levels in states that are impacted by hurricanes frequently, and monitoring the level of damage is virtually impossible.

A few environmental interest groups have taken charge by obtaining satellite images of affected areas from contractors, but this method is time consuming and expensive. Ho and Handan-Nader have a different approach–an automated one which has the capacity to do the exact same thing in less than a third of the amount of time.

With help from Google, the NAIP, the Environmental Working group and Waterkeeper Alliance, the Stanford team was able to successfully develop an algorithm which has the capacity to analyze data patterns in order to find CAFOs. A wide variety of objects, buildings, people, and animals are associated by the program to CAFOs, allowing for the identification of CAFOs that were previously unseen. Hopefully, this will have a positive impact on the environment by bringing more attention to the effects that animal waste from CAFOs have.

While it might seem that animal manure is a fantastic and environmentally-friendly alternative to chemical fertilizer, the consequences resulting from CAFOs show us otherwise. Excess animal waste has the ability to affect humans by polluting our drinking water in addition to causing negative effects to the environment.

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