A new tool will help activists shut out animal factories before they can set up shop
See also: Tour de Stench Diary and Taking Big Pig to Court
By Jenny Coyle
Scott Dye is not a criminal.
But he wanted to research the potential criminal activities of Sand Livestock Systems, a corporation that operates massive hog factories in Nebraska. That meant sorting through and photocopying public records at the state's Department of Environmental Quality.
So for two days - under the watchful eye of a paid employee of the state - he toiled in a glass office at the agency's headquarters in Lincoln.
"They wouldn't even let the staffer read a magazine, or give her busy work to do," said Dye, a national rural organizer for the Sierra Club. "Guess they figured I was a pretty dangerous guy."
The truth is, Dye is dangerous. Or at least the information he spent two years gathering and compiling should be considered very, very dangerous to the corporate criminals - some with innocuous names like Buckeye Egg Farm or Ponderosa Dairy - that raise most of the nation's pigs, chickens and dairy cows.
With the help of volunteers who scrutinized the files of state and federal agencies, the Club has produced "The RapSheet on Meat Factories: A Database of Convictions, Fines, Pollution Violations, and Regulatory Records." Dye suspects that when the public gets a hold of the data, these facilities will have a tough time finding a community that will let them in.
The RapSheet is an incredible litany of violations of clean water and clean air laws and regulations; employee deaths by crushing, dismemberment and electrocution; deaths among the general public from eating tainted meat; massive meat recalls; worker safety citations; animal cruelty violations; and unfair market practices including cheating contract growers. More than 50 of the violations reached the level of criminal activities, with several of the perpetrators sentenced to hard time.
"There are many cases where somebody just put a pump on a manure lagoon, or opened a valve or shot the stuff down a storm drain or into a creek," said Dye. "They weren't accidents. Someone was overwhelmed by mountains of waste and looked for an easy way to get rid of it, so they dumped it into a wetland or river."
Take the case of a hog grower in Spring Grove, Minn., who was fined $5,000 by the United States District Court of Minnesota for directing a dirt-moving contractor to lower the wall of an earthen waste pit. About 1,650 fish, including brown trout, were killed in two creeks as a result of the discharge.
The beauty of the RapSheet, said Dye, is that it's accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. That's good news to virtually anyone who finds out that an animal factory has plans to set up shop in the neighborhood. Just search under the name of the company, and a list of past violations will appear on the screen.
"If a community has been targeted by Cargill, for instance, and company officials are schmoozing the city council, a local resident can present a long list of violations in places where Cargill was not the good neighbor it claims to be," said Dye. "It's great evidence to present at a public hearing or when a zoning change is being approved to accommodate one of these facilities."
And the best way to stop these operations, according to Ken Midkiff, director of the Club's Clean Water/CAFO Campaign, is at the local level - before they get established. "The strength of the Sierra Club is its grassroots organizational structure, and that's the most successful approach for this campaign. Once an animal factory is built, it's nearly impossible to make it go away."
Brenda Ivey has learned that firsthand. In "The Scoop on the Poop: Corporate Hog Farms in America," a video documentary released recently by the Alabama Chapter, Ivey's eyes well up with tears and her voice gets shaky. Her anger is palpable. As she speaks, her husband, seated next to her in the living room of their Alabama home, gently rests his hand on top of hers.
"On the days they spread the waste, we can't even go to the mailbox," Ivey says. "When we have fresh air, I thank God for it. I will never, ever take my fresh air for granted again - if I ever get it back."
Another Alabama resident in the video, June Weldon, says with cold cynicism, "Come to my house for a day. Have a cup of tea. See if you can keep it down."
Midkiff said waging local battles is effective especially now, when hog growers are borrowing a strategy long-ago adopted by the chicken industry: contract with existing farmers to raise the animals.
The corporation owns the animals and pays for the feed and antibiotics, but the farmer provides the buildings and labor, and takes responsibility for animal waste. If a corporation sets up a slaughterhouse, Midkiff said, you can bet it will be searching a radius of 100 miles for farmers willing to grow the animals.
In some cases, a company won't slaughter the livestock of farmers who haven't contracted with them, so the farmer has to take the animals out of the area - or in the case of Missouri, out of the state - to get the job done.
"The pressure to sign on is intense," said Midkiff.
For instance, Nebraska is being wooed by corporations that have been run out of states that are either fed up with animal-factory pollution or have become so saturated with the facilities that there's no more room for them.
"Contracting has become an easy way to get family farmers hanging on by a thread to think the big boys really want to help them out," said Laura Krebsbach, a Sierra Club organizer in Nebraska. "That means more rural residents will see their neighbors applying for permits to build these massive facilities."
Midkiff warns that, aside from the stench and water pollution they create, neighbors who enter into contracts will likely be overwhelmed with a certain responsibility they assume for the company: disposing of carcasses.
"There are enormous die-offs from stress, disease and animals in overcrowded conditions eating each other," he said.
In Oklahoma, organizer Jeanine Hale has presented state agencies with photos of hog carcasses discarded in ditches and Dumpsters. In Mississippi, organizer Louie Miller and the Club's environmental justice organizer John McCown teamed up with church leaders to get 480 people at a public hearing to oppose a plan to incinerate hog carcasses at CAFO sites.
"These are not the battles we relish fighting," said Midkiff. "I tell rural residents, 'Keep your ears open, talk to your neighbors, read notices of public meetings. And if you get wind that an animal factory wants to come to your town, check the RapSheet, call your local Sierra Club chapter, or call me.'"
As Wayne Cummings said in the Alabama Chapter's video, "You can't show me a county in this country that's happy with the choice it made to invite one of these facilities into their community. I defy you to find one. Everyone regrets it."
See more information on the Clean Water/CAFO Campaign. Ken Midkiff may be reached at (573) 815-9250; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo courtesy USDA
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