The presence of the facilities has alarmed and mobilized whole communities. Protesters have packed the meetings of county supervisors, and the hearing rooms and halls of state legislatures.
To be sure a slew of regulations have crept onto the books. But still lingering are questions about the worth of such facilities and the economic and environmental damage that many say the operations have inflicted on communities. Also lingering are legal cases. At the start of the year one such lawsuit was settled. But as John Nichols explains in this retrospective, even its resolution leaves questions unanswered.
Julie Jansen says she remembers July 4th, 1995 like it was yesterday. All of her children were sick with symptoms the Minnesota family had come to know well -- debilitating headache, nausea, and intractable diarrhea.
When a phone call to another family revealed similar symptoms nearby, Jansen says she began to wonder about her "other" neighbors.
Thousands of hogs are housed on two sites within a mile-and-a-half of Jansen's home about 90 miles west of Minneapolis. The animals are owned by a cooperative called ValAdCo, which citing concerns over bio-security, denied Market to Market access to its barns. The confinements and their waste lagoons holding more than 40-million of gallons of excrement were built in 1994.
"It just started stinking inside our house, it was really hot and the windows were all shut and the air conditioner was on and it was just the most ungodly smell I've ever smelled in my life. It just hit me like a ton of bricks. My God, we're getting sick from the air."
Jansen says she called the Poison Control Center and described her family's malady to officials. Concerned that the symptoms were consistent with exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas, the Poison Control Center advised Jansen to vacate the premises.
"I said it's coming in my house from outside. He said, ma'am, I suggest you leave the area immediately and I said, why what else could happen? He said ma'am, the only symptoms you're not experiencing from hydrogen sulfide poisoning are seizures, convulsions and death."
Jensen then began a crusade, of sorts, to get the state of Minnesota to enforce existing laws limiting hydrogen sulfide emissions. In 1996, she acquired a Jerome Meter, which measures hydrogen sulfide. Jansen claims she routinely recorded hydrogen sulfide levels in excess of the Minnesota state standard of 50 parts per billion. She says her highest recorded levels were in excess of 1,400 parts per billion at the ValAdCo property line.
In 1998, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency or MPCA, began monitoring hydrogen sulfide emissions from ValAdCo and recorded levels above state standards on 53 occasions that year and on more than 100 occasions the following year.
In 1999, the MPCA fined ValAdCo $32,000 for the violations and ordered the cooperative to cover two of its lagoons with a geo-textile fabric and several inches of straw. Despite the fines and improvements, state records indicate the coop continued to violate state air quality guidelines hundreds of times in the following months.
In 2000, five years after her first suspicion that the hog farm was making her family ill; the state Health Department validated Jensen's concerns. In a memo to the MPCA, the Minnesota Department of Health stated that toxic gas emanating from the manure lagoon of ValAdCo did, indeed, pose a potential health threat. The memo stated that the Department of Health "believes that, without delay, actions should be taken to reduce the emissions" and bring them in compliance with Minnesota rules "for the protection and well-being of human health."
ValAdCo CEO Eddie Crum, who took over the helm of the coop in 1999, acknowledges problems prior to his arrival. However, he says ValAdCo is working hard to improve its environmental record.
Eddie Crum: "One of the stated objectives that we had was to become the environmental leader in our industry period. That's a stated objective of our organization. So, in order to be able to accomplish that objective, we felt quite strongly that we needed something that would be 100% compliant, 100% of the time.
Dr. Kaye Kilburn: "I think hydrogen sulfide must be avoided everywhere."
Dr. Kaye Kilburn, is the author of the book, Chemical Brain Injury and, arguably, is the nation's foremost authority on hydrogen sulfide and its affects on the human body.
Kilburn's experience with the toxin began in the oilfields of Louisiana, where hydrogen sulfide is a naturally occurring byproduct of drilling for fossil fuels. But he says in recent years the problems are shifting to large-scale livestock operations including dairies, poultry operations and hog farms.
He claims that even one exposure to the toxin is enough to cause irreversible brain damage. And he says the operational size of today's mega-farms is the reason they threaten public health.
Dr. Kaye Kilburn: I've looked at one in Moab, Utah area where they have enormous numbers of hog husbandry facilities. And the prevailing westerly wind moves this hydrogen sulfide several miles to get the neighbors who are downwind and I've looked at the effects in half a dozen of the neighbors and the effects are there.
Kilburn says large-scale operations should be permitted only in remote areas where human exposure to hydrogen sulfide would be limited. He also advocates placing covers on lagoons to trap the gasses.
In June of 2001, in an agreement with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, ValAdCo agreed to pay a $125,000.00 fine and install non-permeable covers like this one on all 14 of its manure holding lagoons.
ValAdCo CEO Eddie Crum, says the new system, complete with ozone air treatment, has enabled the coop to be in compliance with state emission standards.
Eddie Crum: "That's a unique system out there, it's very expensive. We spent, if you look at the whole thing, we spent about $400,000 just on that one site getting those covers put on and the treatment systems and doing the development and the engineering that went behind it. Since the non-permeable cover we've had not a single exceedence of the state standard. We are absolutely in compliance with every state regulation.
Julie Jansen: Since they put the covers on technically they are in compliance. I won't argue that, but even though they're not exceeding the state standards they're still a nuisance. If the odor is effecting our quality of life, way of life and our health it's still a nuisance.
Eddie Crum: "I'd live there…
John Nichols: "You wouldn't be afraid to live there?"
Eddie Crum: "No sir. I'd live… I wish we had a house on that place. I mean, I'd love to live over there. But you know we don't have a house and, you know I can't afford to build one. If we could, I'd put a house on every site and every manager we got would live there. I mean, they'd love to live there. But the fact is we don't have the money to build those houses. I mean we could have built ‘em, but we put covers on instead."
Despite the improvements, Jansen threatened to sue ValAdCo alleging that prolonged exposure to hydrogen sulfide had caused neurological damage to her 11-year-old daughter.
This past New Year's Eve, the two parties reached an out-of-court settlement. While confidentiality agreements prohibit discussion of the terms, it appears that ValAdCo will purchase Jansen's home.
While Jansen and ValAdCo appear to have struck an amiable settlement, Kilburn claims the general public is the real loser in the deal.
Dr. Kaye Kilburn: "…These things need the light of day. One of the reprehensible things that's been done in court is to lock up the evidence when they made an agreement to settle, so the facts are not made public."
John Nichols: "Have you experienced that?"
Dr. Kaye Kilburn: "Oh yes. It's happening nearly every day."
For Market to Market, I'm John Nichols.