CAFO (A CONCENTRATED ANIMALS FEEDING OPERATION)

Like all farm animals
pigs like to live outdoors

IN 1984, THE CALIFORNIA WASTE MANAGEMENT BOARD paid the Los Angeles consulting firm, Cerrell Associates, $500,000 to define the communities least likely to oppose the building of a waste facility. What resulted was the Cerrell Report  which explicitly identified communities who would not oppose LULUs (locally undesirable land uses). The list included Southern, Midwestern communities and rural communities open to promises of economic benefits , as well as conservatives, Republicans, those aligned with free-market principles, and people with high school or less educations. It further concluded that long-time residents and those involved in “nature exploitive occupations” like farming, ranching, and mining, would also be inclined to accept a waste facility suddenly appearing in their community.

The Cerrell Report explains much of what happens in rural America. The study, first released in the 1980’s but still true today, suggests that industries and governments often look to poor, economically depressed regions—desperate for jobs, with little political influence or power—to site noxious or undesirable businesses. It’s a report that easily explains why CAFOS (concentrated animal feeding operations) appeared in Arkansas.

It’s no secret that livestock raised on factory farms are a major source of air and water pollution. As these industries continue to consolidate, with larger and larger operations housing thousands of animals, the waste they produce becomes an ever-increasing problem for neighboring communities. But in the Ozark Mountains of rural Arkansas, people have begun to fight back.

What happens after you flush

HARRISON IS A SMALL TOWN. It has a city hall. Houses set on quaint tree-lined streets, and like any town of this size, a Public Works Department that takes care of city streets and manages waste. In fact, it takes a crew of four people working full time just to manage the waste produced in Harrison, and that system costs millions of dollars to build and run.

When you flush a toilet in Harrison, it starts wastewater on a journey that ultimately ends in nearby Crooked Creek.

The multiple step process first removes all inorganic solids (everything from tooth brushes to tampons), then separates biosolids from waste water. Once the volume and odor of this waste is reduced and the presence of harmful microorganisms minimized, solids are either to a landfill or sometimes further processed for use as a soil conditioner, while the remaining water is typically disinfected by chlorine or an ultraviolet (UV) system before it cascades down stair-like steps and discharges into a receiving stream (or creek).

That journey includes a bar screen that removes non-sewage items such as rags, clothing, toothbrushes or solids that might damage or clog the equipment, a primary clarifier that slows the water so grit can settle into its cone-shaped bottom, then aeration tanks that store this sludge for least 30 days as bacteria breaks the solids down to reduce their volume level before being pumped to the Solids Handling Building. From here they’re pumped into a division box that splits the wastewater into aeration basin racetracks that remove nitrogen from the wastewater. Cone-shaped tanks in the final clarifier remove additional solids before water is disinfected by an ultraviolet system. Meanwihle sludge is pumped to the solid handling building where a belt press squeezes all the water out, leaving dried biosolids to be land applied by a slinger truck. An ultraviolet system disinfects the remaining water before it cascades down stair-like steps in the final raceway to rebuild oxygen levels before being discharged into receiving stream.

Dealing with human waste is a complicated, messy and expensive business, but with the notable exception of slinger trucks used at the end of this process, none of the aforementioned steps are applied to waste from hog CAFOS. Municipal waste treatment plants aren’t usually built for treating hog waste, and that’s a problem.

How big? you might be wondering.

If one pig makes as much waste as six or eight people, then you can imagine how much waste is produced by 5000 hogs. Hint: it’s more waste than produced by the entire town of Harrison.

When a hog cafo suddenly appears
in your backyard

IT MADE FOR AN INTERESTING SITUATION when a hog CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) appeared a few miles away from Harrison in Mt. Judea, a town in one of the lowest populated and poorest regions in one of the poorest states in the country. A large percentage of the people here live below the poverty level. Jobs are scarce and wages are low. It’s a tough place to raise a family and make a living.

Ironically, tourism is one of the largest sources of income in rural Arkansas. This area’s local attraction is the Buffalo River, which Congress declared our first National River in 1972. It’s an economic engine for Newton County and the entire Ozarks, with people coming from across the country each year to fish and paddle down 135 miles of pristine wilderness on one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the United States. So it was somewhat surprising when a factory farm big enough to warehouse six thousand hogs was approved for construction in close proximity to the river.  Even more threatening: two open ponds to be placed beside these hog warehouses, which were to be filled with liquid hog waste.

While nearby Harrison spends millions of dollars each year to treat its wastewater, no plans were offered to treat the waste from this new CAFO. Instead, they proposed spreading millions of gallons of untreated liquid hog waste directly on nearby fields as part of a “Comprehensive Nutrient Management” plan. The “nutrient” they’d be managing? Hog poop.

When hog waste is spread on open fields, it eventually leaches into the ground, which in the Ozarks is definitely a problem because this region is characterized by topography referred to by geologists as “karst”; imagine a shallow topsoil layer over a highly porous limestone bedrock interlaced with cracks, sinkholes, caves and underground waterways, all of which make it easy for liquid hog waste to seep into the ground and end up in nearby rivers and streams. In the case of this hog CAFO, that meant Big Creek, a tributary of the Buffalo River.

The prospect of factory farms polluting this river led people living in the Ozarks to create the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance (BRWA). Working with data collected by scientists like and with the support of respected figures in their community, these activists began a campaign to oppose the proliferation of factory farms not only in their community, but across the entire state of Arkansas.

“We live in one of the poorest, least populated counties in the state,” observes Gordon Watkins, president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance. “As people, individuals like myself, became aware of what a huge threat this new CAFO was, we began to talk. We began to strategize about what we could do not only to stop this one, but to prevent more from coming into the area.”

What is a Karst hydrogeologist?

The BRWA decided to begin by first testing the water quality of streams near the new CAFO. Luckily, Dr. Van Brahana, a noted karst hydrogeologist, had the same idea. After he learned that state officials had granted a permit for building a hog CAFO in such an ecologically fragile location, he quickly went to work.

Hydrogeologists can measure the natural factors affecting water quality, plus the human and land-use activities that result in its contamination. For example, Dr. Brahana understood that the region’s underlying karst geology and the processes associated with the movement of groundwater through these porous rock formations, could be studied using “Groundwater Tracing” By injecting blue dye into groundwater near the hog CAFO, he could use sensors to track its appearance is farther downstream. This would allow him to predict if hog waste runoff spread on fields near the CAFO could end up in surrounding streams and rivers.

Dr. Brahana’s ongoing collection of data has been vital in helping the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance monitor and hold accountable any polluters who might compromise the quality and safety of Arkansas waterways. Without this ongoing vigilance, millions of gallons of liquid swine waste might otherwise leach, unnoticed, into the Buffalo National River.

Enter the unlikely Activists

EVERY STORY NEEDS A GOOD STORYTELLER. The tale of the Buffalo River owes a great debt to environmentalists like Kenneth L. Smith, author of The Buffalo River Handbook (now in its 9th printing). He captures the essential beauty of this region and has inspired generational of environmental activists who have fallen in his footsteps.

“The Buffalo River is only one part of our environment,” Smith writes. “No less than for every other living species, our existence depends totally on clean air, clean water, and healthy soil. Along the Buffalo and everywhere else, the human economy depends on the natural economy.”

When government agencies are slow to provide oversight on CAFOS, organizations like the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance (BRWA) step in to ensure their region’s water quality. With over 2,500 supporters, BRWA’s goals include first, halting the CAFO now in their backyard and have it relocated outside of the Buffalo River Watershed, and second, preventing future construction of hog CAFOs in the area.

Woody Allen once famously said that “eighty percent of life is showing up.” Perhaps the other twenty percent is to show up with something to say.  The first step for any public protest might be transforming your goals into the right message, one big (and short) enough to fit on a sign!

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement  (IOWA CCI) has blocked over 100 factory farms from building or expanding their operations, and now they’ve gathered a series of tools you can use to topple the goliathsin your own community.

These give you the ins and outs on everything with Factory Farm FAQs, Sample Petitions, Sample Letters to the Editor, Distance Charts, Rules & Regulations and tips for how to develop effective Three-Prong Strategies. You can download their toolkit here.

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About Douglas Gayeton
and The Lexicon

Douglas Gayeton, Chief Lexicographer and Co-founder of The Lexicon, is an award-winning information architect, filmmaker, photographer, and writer who has created work at the boundaries of traditional and converging media since the early 90’s. He directed the KNOW YOUR FOOD series for PBS and GROWING ORGANIC for USDA, and has authored two books, SLOW: Life in a Tuscan Town, and LOCAL: The New Face of Food & Farming in America.

Everything is Water looks at the environmental impacts of human activity on our water system. The short film series is produced by the Lexicon of Sustainability with support from Just Think Films, The Ford Foundation, the Levi Strauss Foundation and 11th Hour. Other short films in the series examine aquaculture, and water use in the textile industry, and agricultural runoff in Iowa.

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