Meat processing plants have been in the news recently because of the spread of the coronavirus among laborers, who frequently must work in close quarters — in dangerous, unsanitary conditions — to slaughter chickens, hogs and other livestock in the Chesapeake region and elsewhere. This is a very serious health crisis, and we should not force these plants to remain open.
But this is also an opportunity to re-examine the many public health and environmental risks of industrial meat production. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and large slaughterhouses are not only a threat to workers, but also to local communities and the wider environment — especially the Bay.
Let’s start with the living animals. There are more than a billion chickens and turkeys produced every year in the Chesapeake watershed, most of them spending their lives in giant confinement barns, more factory than farm. These operations are a major source of air pollution, with profound local effects. A 2018 study by Johns Hopkins researchers found that people who live near high-density poultry production are 66% more likely to be diagnosed with pneumonia, for example.
One of the pollutants released by poultry operations is ammonia, an extremely hazardous and pungent gas. A recent report by the Environmental Integrity Project estimated that poultry in the Bay watershed produces about 200 million pounds of ammonia air pollution per year. Ammonia can cause respiratory problems, asthma attacks and other health issues. If a poultry operation moves into your neighborhood, the smell of ammonia alone can destroy your quality of life and your property value.
Ammonia is also a serious threat to the ecological health of the nation’s largest estuary. Ammonia is a nitrogen compound, and nitrogen is, of course, the leading driver of algae blooms and dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay. Our report estimates that the ammonia from poultry operations, after settling on land or water in the Bay watershed, adds about 12 million pounds of nitrogen to the estuary every year. This is more nitrogen than all of the sewage and industrial wastewater plants in Maryland (which released 10 million pounds of nitrogen in 2018) or Pennsylvania (9 million pounds).
On top of the ammonia air emissions, poultry operations are also responsible for another 12 million pounds of nitrogen reaching the Bay every year as runoff from crop fields where poultry litter is land-applied as fertilizer, often in excess.
Once chickens and turkeys are fattened up in CAFOs, they are trucked to one of the region’s slaughterhouses. As we now know all too well, these slaughterhouses can be deadly to workers. But they are also a huge source of water pollution. As the Environmental Integrity Project documented in 2018, a typical slaughterhouse will dump hundreds of pounds of nitrogen into the water every day. The industry routinely violates its water pollution permits with impunity, even though it operates under lax and outdated pollution limits that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency refuses to update.
The current state of affairs is reckless and unsustainable. Industrial meat production should be regulated like any other industry. Its workers should be protected, and its air and water pollution should be monitored and limited. At the end of the day, the corporate owners of these factories must be held accountable for the harm to public health and the Chesapeake Bay that too often hides from sight.
Abel Russ is senior attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project and co-author of the recent report, Poultry Industry Pollution in the Chesapeake Region.
The views expressed by opinion columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.