May 6, 2005

Pig poo pollution panic

>> Chateauguay Valley residents fear massive hog farms will soil rivers, land and air


Holly Dressel, a member of the Haut-St-Laurent Rural Coalition, impatiently brushed aside a request for the top three environmental problems caused by the industrial hog farms planned for the Chateauguay Valley. “Before you list point 1: land degradation, point 2: water pollution, you have to say that point zero is the loss of democracy,” she explains. “Industrial livestock operations (ILOs) can’t exist in a democracy. If you have any say about what you don’t want, the first things you’re probably going to refuse are big lakes of stinking pigshit.”

How ILO hog farms differ from the Old Macdonald variety is in population density - 1,000 or more pigs per barn - and in what the industry delicately calls waste management. A 1,000-pig barn produces five tons of pig manure per day, and collecting and composting it in solid form is expensive. Instead, the manure falls through the barn’s steel grate floor where it’s mixed with 20 times its volume in water and flushed into a large open-air waste lagoon. From there, the part that doesn’t leach into the water table or overflow into rivers is sprayed onto open fields. According to Dressel, most liquid-manure operations can be smelled miles away. “What you’re smelling is ammonia, so if you can smell it, it’s damaging your lungs,” she adds.

Getting by bylaws

Farming communities’ first line of defence against ILOs is passing a solid waste bylaw. It allows traditional farmers to continue raising pigs while preventing factory farmers from polluting the land, air and water with liquid manure. The Quebec government seems to have responded to local solid waste bylaws, critics charge, by stripping rural municipalities of their traditional agricultural zoning powers with the Règlement sur les exploitations agricoles, passed June 12, 2002. Maxime Laplante, the Quebec secretary general of the Union des paysans, the international small farmers’ union, describes the process, and it’s the stuff that gives globalization protesters nightmares. “The decision about how many hogs to allow is made in private,” he says. “There’s no clear way to appeal it, and the agronomist’s final decision is secret. Citizens and their elected representatives don’t even have the right to know where the barns are located once they’re completed.”

A number of municipalities have passed solid waste bylaws anyway, including the Chateauguay Valley towns of Hemmingford and Elgin. According to Elgin town councillor David Drummond, its solid waste bylaw was passed in September 2001. An election in November brought in a mayor and a council majority, himself included, elected on an anti-ILO platform. An anti-ILO referendum held at the same time passed with 73 per cent of the vote. In the spring of 2002, local farmer Mario Vinet applied for a permit to build a 1,200-sow barn. The previous year, spring runoff from the Adirondacks made the Trout River overflow its banks. The land Vinet set aside for spraying liquid manure was under water. “Runoff from that field goes into the Trout River. The Trout flows into the Chateauguay River, which supplies Hemmingford’s drinking water. The Chateauguay flows into the St. Lawrence upstream from Montreal,” says Drummond.

The town council denied the permit, citing the liquid manure ban. Industrial pig farming corporation Les meuneries Cote-Paquette, Vinet’s backer, challenged the bylaw in court. In June 2002, Elgin’s building inspector got his own independent legal opinion and unilaterally granted the construction permit. Work is now complete on the barn and, according to Drummond, “The pigs should be arriving any day now.”

Curious things have been happening on the legal front. The town council could have cancelled the construction permit, but let it stand. The council also stopped defending their bylaw in court, and has announced they have no plans to enforce its bylaw, even though it was written as a nuisance bylaw rather than a zoning one.

“Once the permit was issued, the stakes were raised and the issues weren’t as clear-cut,” explains Drummond. “It looked like a long battle and it didn’t look hopeful. We got elected to do something and there’s no obvious way to do it. You almost feel like you’re in a third-world country. Our environment is trashed so Korea and Japan can have cheap pork.”

Bluster and bluffs

Quebec’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs would prefer that the solid waste bylaws never made it to court. According to Elgin Mayor Noella Daoust, Jacques Boivin, a territory planning coordinator and ministry representative, spoke to her at a zoning meeting in Huntington on Dec. 3. Boivin told her the bylaw was illegal and the hog farmer would be able to sue both the municipality for passing the bylaw and the individual councillors who voted for it. “He said it was in some new regulation. I didn’t believe that was possible. I asked for a copy right away. I’m still waiting for it.”

In fact, no such regulation exists, or has for decades if not centuries, in western democracies. Parliamentary immunity - on the municipal level it’s called statutory authority, but it means the same thing - only allows lawsuits against the municipality as a whole. The individual lawmakers are untouchable for anything they do as legislators. Municipal immunity adds another layer of protection. A city can be sued for the unjust way it applies a law; it cannot be sued simply for passing it.

Currently, the city of Elgin is collecting baseline water quality data. They’ve built a river station and hired a technician to collect samples according to Quebec Environment Ministry standards. The samples are tested each month in Ministry labs but at the city’s expense. “We thought it was more important to get the testing done than to argue about who pays for it,” says Drummond.

Having proper baseline data is important, Dressel says. “After the damage was done in the Beauce, or abroad in the Netherlands or in Georgia and North Carolina, all places where mega-hogfarms have gotten in, industry and government claimed the air or the river or the groundwater was probably that bad all along,” she explains.

Turd tests

Elgin is testing levels of phosphorous, fecal coliform bacteria, plus what the Ministry obliquely calls suspended material. “There are many more things we’d test for if we could afford it,” says Dressel. “They feed the pigs large amounts of antibiotics and hormones and three-quarters of it just cycles right through them. In the finishing barns, they feed the pigs salt to make them put on water-weight just before market - enough can come through to seriously damage the spraying fields. Salinity damage takes longer to recover than almost anything else. We need to do some human health baselines as well - asthma and other lung diseases.”

The Rural Coalition is pursuing a formal complaint to the provincial public health department based on the new Loi de santé publique that make it a provincial responsibility not just to protect people who are already sick, but to prevent threats to public health. This is the first complaint brought by a group rather than an individual to be considered by the province. Coalition members say health officials have expressed alarm both at the amount of hog manure about to be spread in this valley and its vulnerability to flooding. A ruling is expected within the next few weeks.

My, how disgusting, on so many levels. Harvesting existence only to destroy, then having to deal with the scatological repercussions of it all. Tsk, tsk, tsk... humans, I swear. The really nice thing about growing vegetables as opposed to raising animals for food is that vegetables never leave a shit. More proof that this world wouldn't stink nearly as much if everyone was a vegetarian.

After 23 years of living, I am -still- trying to come to terms with how people can bring themselves to eat parts from a creature that once spent most of its life rolling around in its own fecal matter. It's beyond my comprehension, really.

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