Peak & Prairie
April / May 1998
by Sandra Eid, Legislative Coordinator
The Changing Face of Livestock Production
If the measure of a bill's importance is determined by the number of concerned citizens appearing to testify, then SB 98-88 is unquestionably the most important environmental bill of the current legislative session. When it was heard on February 5, Eastern Plains farmers and ranchers filled to overflowing the largest Senate committee room in the Capitol. When the hearing was moved to another building to better accommodate the crowd, it was still standing room only.
SB 98-88, Environmental Regulations for Swine Feedlots, sponsored by Sen. Joan Johnson (D-Adams County) and Rep. Lewis Entz (R-Hooper), addresses a new type of livestock production that is sweeping the nation--large-scale, confined production that is more akin to factories than to traditional farms. The animals are moved along an assembly line to market, with all the factors in their environment carefully controlled. But it is the size of these operations that is most astounding. National Hog Farms in Weld County covers 27,000 acres and produces 320,000 pigs a year. A facility proposed for southern Utah would produce one million pigs annually.
The waste generated on a daily basis by such an operation (more than one million gallons) is equivalent to the waste generated by a city of several hundred thousand people. Manure and process wastewater (the water used to clean the animals and flush the facility) is usually collected in a holding tank or open pit (lagoon) and then applied to surrounding crop land, supposedly to enhance production. According to GOVERNING magazine (February 1998) the Environmental Protection Agency "estimates that livestock manure causes as much as 25 percent of surface water pollution nationwide."
In semi-arid Eastern Colorado the pollution of surface water is less threatening than the pollution of groundwater, the sole source of drinking and irrigation water in that part of the state. Two years ago citizens in Kit Carson County, faced with the arrival of Midwest Hog Farms, petitioned the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission for classification of their groundwater as domestic and agricultural-use quality and for the adoption of anti- degradation standards. The commission made the requested classification but declined to address the issue of degradation. Many of these same citizens were at the Capitol in February to express their support for SB 98-88.
As introduced, the bill would require the permitting of large-scale factory hog farms by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. (Colorado is the only state in the region that does not have a permit program for concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).) Permitted facilities would be required to comply with the following regulations: submission of a swine waste management plan, financial assurance to cover the cost of cleanup, reporting of spills and contamination, monitoring of the nitrogen and phosphorus content of applied waste and the plants and soil to which it is applied and quarterly reporting of the monitoring data. SB 98-88 would require process wastewater vessels and lagoons to be covered to prevent emission of odorous gases and would establish a rebuttable presumption that nitrogen or phosphorus would contaminate groundwater if applied in a way that exceeded agronomic rates by more that 25 % in any quarter. The Sierra Club strongly supports SB 98-88.
Not surprisingly, a quite different feedlot bill was introduced at the request of the Colorado Cattle Feeders Association to ward off any meaningful regulation of CAFOs. HB 98-1308, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, sponsored by Rep. Matt Smith (R-Grand Junction) and Sen. Don Ament (R-Iliff), calls for a "voluntary" partial permit system--a regimen whereby CAFOs could self-select whether they would like to become permitted facilities or continue to operate without permits. The Division of Water Quality would have to prove the selection "wrong." The bill does not authorize any permit fees. The Sierra Club strongly opposes HB 98-1308. We believe that all CAFOs should be required to get permits, comply with the regulations attached to those permits and pay the fees necessary to support a program that ensures compliance.
As of this writing, the fate of these two bills was undecided. However, we can expect many citizens of Eastern Colorado to continue to demand action when the probability of a polluted environment is so high. The Sierra Club should be ready to lend assistance in this important effort.