…And this little piggy is facing an $11 million fine for inflicting “relentless and extreme” clouds of pig manure odor upon several families near a gigantic factory farm in Berlin, Missouri. The award, which was announced on March 5, was decided by a jury against industrial hog producer Premium Standard Farms, Inc. The company processes about 200,000 hogs per year, generating 83 million gallons of manure and liquid waste yearly for the past eleven years. That stuff all goes into lake-sized lagoons and ends up spread over the company’s 4,300 acre compound, with predictable results.
If only Premium Standard had invested in a few biogas digesters! Digesters convert raw manure into reusable methane gas and fertilizer. The dairy industry is starting to convert to sustainable digester-based manure management through programs like Vermont’s Cow Power, and the U.S. EPA is encouraging the entire agricultural sector to make the switch through its AgSTAR biogas program. So what was holding Premium back?
Factory Farms and Manure
Actually it’s a bit unfair to bash only pig farms because, helped along by a healthy dollop of factory farm deregulation from the previous administration, factory farms have been wreaking havoc on the environment, whether it’s pigs, chickens or what have you. The Premium Standard case exemplifies the industry’s devil-may-care approach to waste management. The company (a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods and ContiGroup) claimed that it was using the manure as “fertilizer,” but five weeks of testimony convinced the jury that Premium was simply pumping unprocessed manure continuously from open lagoons onto open land.
The Dairy Industry and Renewable Biogas
Turning now to the dairy industry, we see the beginnings of an entirely different approach that focuses on long term economic growth and profitability, as opposed to short term gains. Vermont’s Cow Power is one example and New York State has just embarked on a similar biogas program for small farms. For large farms, one good example is Desert Hills Dairy, a Nevada dairy farm that has partnered with carbon credit specialist Carbon Bank of Ireland to get quintuple benefits from new biogas digesters. The digesters will produce enough electricity to (1) power operations at the farm and (2) sell the excess to the local utility. As a byproduct, the digesters will also (3) produce fertilizer that can be used on site or sold. The farm can also (4) expand because the digesters will enable it to meet waste disposal regulations far more cost-effectively. And, through a partnership with Carbon Bank of Ireland, the farm will (5) earn certified carbon credits that can be traded on the European market. Actually there’s a sixth benefit – some digesters can handle a mix of feedstocks, so along with manure farmers can use them as an inexpensive way to dispose of excess biomass, grease, and other biowaste.
Pigs and Biogas Digesters
Digesters have been around for a long time. They are standard features in municipal wastewater treatment operations all over the world, and new technological advances are making them more efficient and simple to operate. EPA’s AgSTAR website includes a directory of experienced biogas digester companies and a quick search of the ol’ tubes reveals companies like Biogas Energy, which helpfully reminds pig farmers that its digesters will eliminate a variety of environmental impacts including air emissions — oops too late for Premium Standard.
Biogas Digesters and the Bottom Line
If the factory farm industry needed a wake-up call, this was it. The $11 million award against Premium went to just seven families, and the company still has to face 250 more plaintiffs who are waiting for their day in court. The choice seems pretty obvious: forget the short term profits for a change and invest in proven technology that can boost long term profitability, or face bankruptcy over crippling lawsuits.
Image: Pig by be_khe on flickr.com.
Update: The new film Pig Business has more on the environmental impact of factory farms.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.