September 29, 2009
Egg Factory Farm Riles Residents of San Joaquin Valley
Egg farm pollution fouls air and water; threatens health
For more than 10 years, residents of Lathrop, Calif., have endured the stench of a bad neighbor: the Olivera Egg Ranch.
The road cutting through their community in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley leads to multi-acre cesspools that collect feces from 600,000 to 750,000 egg-laying chickens confined in cramped wire cages.
There are no effective measures in place to limit emissions or prevent exposure to pathogens from flies and other animals who can act as carriers.
"I hang about 20 fly strips from the ceiling, and it only takes a couple of days to fill them all up," says Larry Yepez, who has lived in his home since before Olivera took over the egg factory.
Air pollution complaints by the dozens
The San Joaquin Valley is already home to some of the worst smog in the country; pollution from hundreds of large dairy and chicken operations further exacerbates the problem.
"Congress states that people have a right to breathe clean air, to drink clean water. These are basic human rights, yet these companies are using the valley's air as their dump site," says Brent Newell, legal director of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, which has stopped the permitting of more than 100 mega-dairies in the state.
"These factory farms don't move into rich communities, rather communities where they know there will be little or no resistance, or resistance without enough financial backing. It's a class issue as well as an environmental justice issue."
Last year, two HSUS attorneys who visited Lathrop were practically bowled over by the noxious odors. They learned that when residents had complained to the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, they were told that because of the state's Right to Farm Act, they had to live with "normal" farm smells.
The attorneys also learned of ailments affecting people in the community—nausea, headaches, chest pains, throat and eye irritation, lesions inside the mouth and sinuses, nosebleeds, and breathing problems.
Water contamination an issue as well
The HSUS sued Olivera in October 2008. "Our lawsuit alleges that Olivera had violated two federal laws providing for a citizen's right to know what toxins they have been exposed to," says HSUS attorney Peter Brandt.
Large factory farms produce huge volumes of animal waste, which can contaminate groundwater and streams. "They put this community at risk without giving them an opportunity to keep from being harmed."
To make matters worse, the egg factory is alleged to have dumped manure next to a ditch that drains into the San Joaquin River, potentially contaminating the water supply in a region where water is already scarce.
In a petition filed in July with the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, The HSUS sought an investigation.
After hearing from the organization's attorneys, the board inspected the farm and ordered Olivera to fill in the ditch near its 16-acre cesspool of liquefied manure—to prevent what the agency called "conceivable discharge" into the river.
The enemy next door
For Yepez, who has fought in the jungles of Vietnam and against wildfires in Yosemite National Park, this is a battle unlike any other.
"In a combat situation, you know who the enemy is or where the fire is coming from, but when you deal with big business, you find yourself facing deception and untruths," he says.
Most chickens raised for eggs are kept in cramped battery cages. Now that Yepez knows the truth about animal factories, he and his family have begun paying more attention to where their food comes from.
"Factory farms are such an inhumane way of raising our food," he says. "Most people have no idea that the chicken from a store was once an animal, a living being."
Yepez says the value of his property has plummeted, and he doubts he can sell.
"Whatever the outcome of this case, the lawsuit has given my family hope. Even if we don't win any money, at least there is a chance now they will clean this place up. And if we win a lawsuit, maybe we can use that money to relocate somewhere where it's not so bad."
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