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Factory Farms Pose Environmental and Health Risks: Communities Taking Legal Action

CAFO stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, sometimes known as factory farms. These farms are located in rural and suburban areas, and are home to massive amounts of livestock, including pigs, chickens, and cows. According to the EPA, a CAFOs are agricultural operations where animals are kept and raised in confined situations. CAFOs congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area. Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on rangeland. Though they offer a less expensive method of producing higher volumes animal products, they are creating big trouble for the communities in which they are located. So much so that many community members have begun taking legal action.

The troubles with CAFO are significant and range from environmental pollution to serious health risks for those living in the areas near the CAFO. One study conducted by the Pew Trusts and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that living near CAFO can trigger respiratory symptoms, various diseases, impaired function, and neurobehavioral symptoms, including depression, anger, fatigue, and reduced vigor. There is also potential exposure to E. Coli, salmonella, and particulate matter, and concern for antimicrobial resistance, zoonotic disease transfer, and potential pandemics.

Problems occur when various gases, vapors, aerosols, and chemical compounds including hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and various mercaptans are produced from animal waste and the disposal of carcasses and released into the air. Additionally, many factory farming practices are associated with the reduced quality of life and health risks. For instance, the waste is transported to area lagoons or cesspits. When these lagoons are agitated, it results in the release of hydrogen sulfide into the air. As more room is needed in the lagoons for waste, the existing waste is spread for fertilizer, creating a growing “fecal blanket” that exceeds the soil’s capacity to absorb nutrients. This also contaminates surface water and stimulates the growth of algae and bacteria. The amount of excrement can be enormous. According to the Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club, the number of animals on a CAFO can range from the hundreds to millions. The quantity of urine and feces from even the smallest CAFO is equivalent to the urine and feces produced by 16,000 humans.

Finally, CAFOs are notorious for the mishandling of dead animals. Regulations are rarely enforced and animal disposal is unsanitary and dangerous, to the remaining livestock and residents in the area. Many people not traditionally associated with animal rights activism are nonetheless shocked and disgusted to see the living conditions of the animals in the CAFO.

Factory Farming Tearing Apart Communities

CAFO were originally viewed as positive additions to rural farming communities and were predicted to reduce unemployment and poverty, but the exact opposite occurred. Many of factory farmers are locked into long-term marketing contracts and barely making ends meet, not to mention lacking the resources needed to make their farms safe. The system they thought would be their saving grace has made them desperate and reliant on a farm that is destroying their community.

In addition to the health concerns of CAFO, having an industrial farm in a community has proven just downright unpleasant. The Pew study found that CAFO generate controversy in communities and greatly reduce quality of life, as the terrible stench leads to feelings of isolation and a loss of freedom. Once thriving, rural communities where people spent significant periods of time active outdoors are a shell of what they once were.

Communities are fighting back against CAFOs. Attorneys representing homeowners, small business owners, and family farmers are filing nuisance claims. Nuisance claims, whereby property owners file claims based upon the actions of their neighbors reducing the value or enjoyment of their property, have been brought for hundreds of years, with the hallmark case of “Aldred’s Case” dating to 1610. More recently, in Hanes vs. Continental Grain (2001), Missouri community members defeated the second largest pork producer in the country when they demonstrated the stench of manure and swarms of flies from the farm reduced their quality of life. The court awarded each plaintiff/resident $100,000.

Building a Strong Legal Case against Factory Farming Practices

Despite winsome victories, building a case against factory farming can be a tough challenge. Proving nuisance requires the attorneys focus on the activities of a farm, the unreasonableness of its location and design, its lack of compliance with existing regulation, and the technology currently available to curb the problems. Many CAFOs have access to solutions, but are unwilling or unable to invest in appropriate measures.

Attorneys are working with community members, as well as agricultural engineers and public health physicians familiar with factory farming. Additionally, they are calling on those who travel within the factory farming communities on a regular basis, including postal carriers, police officers, and utility employees to report their experiences. Cases also cite the documented problems with the farms that are enough to put them in violation, but not enough for any action to be taken to stop their practices. The fact is there are laws in existence intended to curb the risks, but few are enforced beyond a written citation. In short: if you are a property owner in a community with a CAFO, do not presume someone else will enforce your rights for you. If your property rights or those of members of your community are being infringed upon by a CAFO, you need to be proactive in searching for legal help.

The battle against the effects of factory farms on communities is one with no end in sight, but it is one worth fighting. If your community is home to a CAFO and you want to take action or you believe your well-being is at risk due to exposure to factory farming practices, we can help.

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