Cesspools of Shame
How Factory Farm Lagoons and Sprayfields Threaten Environmental and Public Health
Animal waste from large factory farms is threatening our health, the water we drink and swim in, and the future of our nation's rivers, lakes, and streams. This report documents the public health and environmental risks associated with the use of the lagoon and sprayfield system, which is commonly used by many types of factory farms to dispose of animal waste. The problems with lagoons and sprayfields described in this report are documented through scientific studies, records of pollution events, and victims' accounts of their experiences.
Lagoons and Sprayfields of the Largest Companies Pollute the Environment
Multi-million dollar corporations control many factory farms. The factory farms owned or controlled by these corporations are plagued with pollution problems. Lagoons at many of these operations have broken, failed, or overflowed, leading to major fish kills and other pollution incidents. Operators have sprayed waste in windy and wet weather, on frozen ground, or on land already saturated with manure. More and more, local communities and environmental groups are looking to the courts to remedy environmental violations.
Lagoons and Sprayfields Threaten Public Health
People living near factory farms are placed at risk. Hundreds of gases are emitted by lagoons and the irrigation pivots associated with sprayfields, including ammonia (a toxic form of nitrogen), hydrogen sulfide, and methane. The accumulation of gases formed in the process of breaking down animal waste is toxic, oxygen consuming, and potentially explosive, and farm workers' exposure to lagoon gases has even caused deaths. People living close to hog operations have reported headaches, runny noses, sore throats, excessive coughing, respiratory problems, nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, burning eyes, depression, and fatigue.
The pathogenic microbes in animal waste can also infect people. Water contaminated by animal manure contributes to human diseases such as acute gastroenteritis, fever, kidney failure, and even death. Nitrates seeping from lagoons and sprayfields have contaminated groundwater used for human drinking water. Nitrate levels above 10 mg/l in drinking water increase the risk of methemoglominemia, or blue baby syndrome, which can cause deaths in infants, and contamination from manure has also been linked to spontaneous abortions. Moreover, the practice of feeding huge quantities of antibiotics to animals in subthereapeutic doses to promote growth has contributed to the rise of bacteria resistant to antibiotics, making it more difficult to treat human diseases. Scientists recently found bacteria with antibiotic resistant genes in groundwater downstream from hog operations.
The Lagoons and Sprayfields Harm Water Quality
Lagoons and sprayfields pose a grave danger to the water we use for drinking and swimming. Lagoons filled with manure have spilled and burst, dumping thousands and often millions of gallons of waste into rivers, lakes, streams, and estuaries. In addition, the impact of runoff from sprayfields can be severe over time since manure is often over-applied or misapplied to cropland and pastures. There are also often cumulative effects from sprayfield runoff within local watersheds because multiple large-scale feedlots cluster around slaughterhouses. Watersheds as far as 300 hundred miles away are also affected by the atmospheric deposition of ammonia that is emitted from lagoons and sprayfields.
Lagoons and sprayfields are often located in close proximity to waterways and floodplains, which increases the likelihood of ecological damage. Lagoon spills and leaks and runoff from sprayfields have killed fish, depleted oxygen in water, contaminated drinking water, and threatened aquatic life. In many cases, lagoons leak because they are not lined, but leakage may even occur with the use of clay liners, with seepage rates as high as millions of gallons per year. How much a lagoon or sprayfield seeps depends, in part, upon where it is sited. In many places, lagoons and sprayfields have been permitted for places where groundwater can be threatened, such as over alluvial aquifers and in locations with shallow groundwater tables. The lagoon system also depletes groundwater supplies by using large quantities of water to flush the manure into the lagoon and spray it onto fields.
Alternative Approaches to the Lagoon and Sprayfield System Exist but Are Rarely Used by Factory Farms
A wide range of alternatives to the lagoon and sprayfield system currently exist, which illustrates that it is not the lack of other options that is driving factory farms to rely almost exclusively on the lagoon and sprayfield system. Instead, factory farms continue to use this polluting system because they have been allowed to use farmland, rural waterways, and air as disposal sites for untreated wastes. Alternative approaches include sustainable agriculture practices that prevent pollution, such as management intensive rotational grazing, hoop houses, and composting. Alternative technologies that treat the wastewater, including anaerobic digestion, wetlands treatment, and sequencing batch reactors also mitigate some of the risks to surface water, groundwater, air, and public health.
Despite the growing body of evidence that the lagoon and sprayfield system pollutes the environment in numerous ways, the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) proposed technology rules under the Clean Water Act would allow the riskiest lagoons to continue to operate and also allow new lagoons to be built. Instead, EPA should ban new lagoons and sprayfields from being built, and phase-out existing systems. The agency should encourage new concentrated animal feeding operations to use sustainable animal production systems. In addition, EPA's final regulations should include controls that address all air, surface water, and groundwater pollution that can contaminate our lakes, streams, and coastal waters, including ammonia, bacteria, viruses, heavy metals, salt, antibiotics, and other toxins.
Sign up for NRDC's online newsletter
Water on Switchboard
NRDC experts write about water efficiency, green infrastructure and climate on the NRDC blog.
Recent Water Posts
- Climate Preparedness Task Force Should Use Water Infrastructure Funding to Protect Communities from Climate Risks
- posted by Ben Chou, 4/11/14
- Fracking in the Bakken threatens Missouri River watershed health
- posted by Marcus Griswold, 4/9/14
- Waiving Environmental Protections in the Bay Delta: Bad News for Fishermen, Water Supply, and BDCP
- posted by Doug Obegi, 4/3/14
NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs
- Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
- Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
- NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.