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From Homeland to Wasteland

In the latest issue of All Animals magazine, author David Kirby describes the health and environmental problems caused by concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and the fight against industrial animal production in rural America

All Animals magazine, July/August 2010


Editor's note: David Kirby's Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment was published in March by St. Martin's Press. He also wrote the award-winning New York Times bestseller Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic—A Medical Controversy (St. Martin's Press, 2005). A journalist for more than 15 years, he has appeared on numerous television and radio programs and is a contributor to The Huffington Post.

by David Kirby



They've been threatened with lawsuits, and with their lives. They've been shunned at church meetings and labeled anti-farm terrorists by Big Ag operators. But they never, ever give up. 

For those fighting the encroachment of industrial animal production into the bucolic corners of heartland America, surrender is unthinkable. They care too deeply about the fate and well-being of rural communities, natural habitats, water and air quality, human health, and animal welfare to let corporate agriculture's share-cropping animal factories spread across the landscape without a fight, no matter how unpleasant things get.

My book Animal Factory details many of the health and environmental risks of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), risks that I came to learn about firsthand in my two years of traveling around 20 states where CAFOs are causing problems.

In some cases, it seems, CAFOs can kill. 

I first heard about the hazards of factory farming from Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whom I got to know through my writing on autism. Kennedy described a tragic situation in a small town called Prairie Grove, tucked in the hilly country of the poultry-packed "Chicken Belt" of Northwest Arkansas. Giant chicken companies had fed their birds arsenic—a growth promoter and intestinal disease treatment—and local farmers had then spread arsenic-laced chicken litter as fertilizer on many of the fields surrounding Prairie Grove.

After visiting the quiet, shady town, I realized how desperate things are there. Arsenic traced to chicken feed has been found in the air filters of local homes. Dozens of cancer cases, including at least 20 in children, have savaged Prairie Grove. Three 14-year-old boys came down with the same extremely rare form of testicular cancer. 

I myself succumbed to much milder symptoms of CAFO pollution. After spending time near the dry, dusty megadairies of Washington and California, and breathing in copious amounts of pulverized cattle feces mixed with pathogens and drugs, I would develop a mild fever, achy joints, a phlegmatic hack, and a raspy throat. Megadairy neighbors call it "manure flu." When I got home from these trips, I would open my suitcase to a massive whiff of cow poop that I brought home with me, enmeshed in my clothes.

So when people I interviewed told me that CAFOs make them sick, I could commiserate. My experiences helped me to relate directly to the rural activists I profiled in my book—people who are defending communities against factory farming interests across the country, from the megadairies in Washington State to the jam-packed "hog belt" of North Carolina.

Mostly farmers and fishermen from conservative backgrounds, they are ordinary Americans driven to extraordinary measures. The book leaves them in the summer of 2009. What follows is a brief update on three of the activists I profiled—and how their struggles continue long after the last page is turned.


The Dark Side of Dairy

Contaminated wells, worthless homes

Helen Reddout became a full-fledged CAFO activist one summer evening in 1996, when her farmhouse was invaded by the choking stench of dairy cow effluence.

"It was like a thousand gallons of fermented sewage had been poured on my bed," she remembers.

The fertile Lower Yakima Valley, Reddout's home since the 1950s, had been overrun recently by dairy CAFOs that were driving out the small, pasture-based dairies that had dotted the area.

Much of that waste is stored in giant "lagoons" and then sprayed on cropland. But there's far more manure than the land can absorb. Overapplication of nitrogen and phosphorous contaminates the Yakima River, the Valley's lifeblood, as well as aquifers that supply water to thousands of homes.

In 1998, Reddout and her group Community Association for Restoration of the Environment (CARE) sued several local megadairies for violating the Clean Water Act. The one defendant that did not settle was excoriated by a federal judge and ordered to pay historic sums in fines and legal fees. All of the settlement money from the other defendants went to fund well-water testing around the Valley. 

In Animal Factory, I detail how residents' well water had indeed been contaminated with dangerously high levels of nitrates—a known cause of diabetes, spontaneous abortions, blue-baby syndrome, and other health issues. The main source is probably manure.

To find out for sure, EPA officials took some 1,000 samples, and final results will be known this summer. The first round of testing found that one in five samples contained a level of nitrates over the safety limit of 10 parts per million; Reddout's well was contaminated at 10.7 parts per million. Affected households were ordered to stop drinking well water, and some people were told to avoid skin contact as well. 

"I had to put six Kleenexes over my mouth, it smelled so bad, and we were four miles away!"

CARE's alliance also has found that the megadairies are dumping cow waste and carcasses for composting on Indian lands. The group is working with Yakima Nation leaders on banning the practices.

"They need it. One man said they were they throwing dozens of dead animals on a pile," Reddout says. "Dogs were carrying hides, skulls, and feet into his yard. His grandchildren were afraid to go outside."

Reddout's work has taken her beyond the scrubby hills of her beloved valley, most recently to Maricopa, Ariz., where a massive beef operation is making life miserable for many.

"I had to put six Kleenexes over my mouth, it smelled so bad, and we were four miles away!" she says. The stench made her throw up. "It was so sickening and so ugly. You could feel the stuff on you."

She met with distraught neighbors in a beautiful new subdivision at a mission-style home that was once worth $300,000. Now it's empty.

"The owner would love to stay here, but she's giving up and moving back to California, paying the bank $50,000 to walk away."

Several families were there, many with preschool-aged children, all on breathing machines, Reddout says, adding that "asthma and autism levels are high in the area."

Back in Yakima, the EPA agreed to molecular testing of the nitrates to determine their origin. "And once that's found, we don't want more studies or education; we want prosecution of the offenders," Reddout warns.

That could happen. EPA officials told her they will make nitrates in Yakima groundwater a "showcase issue" this year, she says. "And that's a great victory for our valley."

Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

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