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Water Ills Tied to Animal Waste, Study Concludes

Environment: Farm industry takes offense, saying cleanup efforts are being overlooked.

July 25, 2001|SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Improper disposal of animal waste at hog, dairy and egg farms is threatening drinking-water supplies, recreational waters and health in parts of Southern California and across the nation, according to a report released Tuesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"This witches' brew of toxins . . . is polluting our air, lakes, rivers, streams, estuaries and drinking water," said Heather Hoecherl, an attorney with the council's Los Angeles office. "It threatens the health of farm workers, neighbors and even communities located far away from factory farms, as well as fish, wildlife and aquatic ecosystems."

The "Cesspools of Shame" report says waste water at so-called factory farms contains viruses and bacteria, antibiotics, nitrates, ammonia, metals and other toxins that contaminate aquifers and recreational waters. Improper waste storage has also resulted in fish kills and the release of toxic airborne chemicals that cause human illness, the report says.

Dairy farmers in the Chino basin and other agricultural representatives were roundly offended by the report.

"I don't think there's recognition by the NRDC of some of the significant efforts put forth by the dairy industry," said Bob Krauter, spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation in Sacramento. "I don't think the dairy industry gets the credit that it deserves. Farmers . . . are doing things on a daily basis to protect the environment."

The report recommends elimination of manure lagoons--large pits that hold waste water--and spray fields--pastures or cropland where the waste water is sprayed as fertilizer.

Both are common north of Orange County. The Chino basin is home to more than 300,000 cows, the largest concentration of dairy animals in the nation and possibly the world. The cows in the Chino basin produce more than 1 trillion pounds of manure and 25 million gallons of waste water annually, some of which ends up in Orange County's ground water.

The dairies' runoff flows into the Santa Ana River, which provides part of the drinking water for more than 2 million people in northern and central Orange County.

The ground-water supply meets state and federal drinking standards. However, manure causes high concentrations of nitrates and minerals that makes water "hard," shortening the life of household appliances by causing buildup in pipes.

Dairy farmers, who said they were not contacted by the environmental group that put out the report, said they have taken dramatic steps to improve operations but are still being made scapegoats.

"We're doing so much work in this area. How much is enough?" said Nathan de Boom, an environmental specialist at the Milk Producers Council, an industry group based in Ontario. "It's frustrating. It makes you want to throw your hands up in the air."

Indeed, farmers, Orange County Sanitation District, Orange County Water District, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, state water officials and others are involved in several efforts to stop dairy pollution from reaching ground-water supplies. Among the projects are artificial wetlands that remove nitrates and ammonia from dairy runoff, flood-control channels and connections between a handful of dairies and the Orange County Sanitation District's sewer system.

Kurt Berchtold, assistant executive officer with the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, said he agrees that farms threaten ground water and waterways but does not think the report's recommendations will solve the problem.

Animal density is the main problem, he said. "It's really a huge volume of waste generated in a small area and a lack of local reuse or disposal alternatives."

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