Humane Society files action against hog producers in Iowa

Some of Iowa's hog confinement facilities emit up to 650 pounds of ammonia daily

Jack Salzsieder, manager of The Odor Control Company of Iowa Tech, checks an odor meter in a hog confinement barn on the Tom Uthe farm, Friday, Feb. 16, 2001, near Slater, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Jack Salzsieder, manager of The Odor Control Company of Iowa Tech, checks an odor meter in a hog confinement barn on the Tom Uthe farm, Friday, Feb. 16, 2001, near Slater, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Some of Iowa’s hog confinement facilities that emit up to 650 pounds of ammonia daily are violating pollution reporting laws, according to notices filed against several top-producing companies.

The Humane Society of the United States served notice Wednesday, July 11, of its intent to sue 51 industrial-style intensive pig confinement operations in Iowa, North Carolina and Oklahoma for unreported releases of ammonia.

Peter Brandt, senior attorney with the Humane Society, said the notices are based on the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.

The law requires all facilities that release certain amounts of harmful contaminants to report those amounts to state and local emergency response teams to provide those entities and local communities with essential information about their exposure to hazardous substances, including ammonia.

“Based on our research, none of these companies were reporting,” Brandt said Wednesday, during a conference call with reporters.

The National Pork Producers Council said it is reviewing the allegations made by the Humane Society. It said the EPA is still evaluating air emissions data gathered from livestock and poultry operations to develop a better understanding of emissions rates, which vary considerably from farm to farm. The pork producers also noted that the Humane Society is not alleging environmental harm, but rather paperwork violations, which they called a "scare tactic" toward family farmers.

The largest emitting operation the Humane Society noticed in Iowa was the Maschhoffs Keosauqua Sow Unit in Van Buren County.

With a population of more than 7,000 gestating and farrowing sows, Hannah Connor, staff attorney for the Humane Society, estimated that it releases a minimum of 552 to 652 pounds of ammonia daily.

Because of ammonia’s lethal potential, high production volume and chronic toxicity, the EPA requires reporting by any facility that releases more than 100 pounds within a 24 hour period, the group said.

Exposure can cause throat and nose irritation and more serious reactions, including death.

All of the operations put on notice exceed the requirement, the group said, and in some cases by vast amounts.

Besides the Maschhoffs, others in Iowa named in the notices were: facilities owned by Austin “Jack” DeCoster doing business as DeCoster Enterprises, Iowa Quality Farms, and Galt Real Estate, whose egg operations were subject to a widespread recall due to salmonella in 2010; and facilities owned by Christensen Farms and Iowa Select. Many are in Wright and Davis counties in southern and central Iowa.

The Maschhoffs and others named in the notices could not be reached for comment.

Brandt said the ammonia release amounts were based on ratios of animals in each facility and other factors.

Most of the facilities confine mother pigs in gestation crates where there is no room for the animals to turn around, he said.

Producers say the crates are used for safety purposes, but the Humane Society has campaigned against the use.

“It’s basically lifelong confinement in a 2-foot by 7-foot space,” Brandt said.

Ron Birkenholz, spokesman for the Iowa Pork Producers, said the group was analyzing the allegations Wednesday.

“We support any type of system that the producer deems is best for his operation,” Birkenholz said about the use of gestation crates.

The Humane Society noted the following:

  • About 80 percent of breeding sows in the United States are confined in crates so small the animals are virtually immobilized for their entire lives. Extensive scientific research confirms this causes animal suffering and produces a considerable amount of excrement-related pollutants.
  • Airborne ammonia at intensive pig confinement operations is primarily a result of the chemical breakdown of animal manure and urine.
  • Each of the named operations confines from 4,000 to more than 100,000 pigs, with the total number of animals at the 51 facilities adding up to more than 540,000 pigs. All of the facilities release more than 100 pounds and sometimes up to 10,000 pounds of ammonia into surrounding communities and the environment on a daily basis.
  • One adult pig produces as much as eight times as much solid waste per day as a human, which means that a 5,000-head industrialized pig operation could produce the same volume of raw sewage as a town of 40,000 people.
  • A 2001 Environmental Protection Agency study estimates that animal agriculture operations are responsible for almost three fourths of airborne ammonia pollution in the United States.
  • In humans, ammonia is a hazardous toxin that can be readily absorbed by the respiratory tract causing irritation of the eyes, nose and throat; pulmonary disease; and, in severe cases, death.
  • Exposure to ammonia can cause chronic stress and health problems for confined animals.
  • Ammonia emissions from the livestock sector contribute significantly to degradation of environmental resources, including the air, water and land.


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