Manure doesn’t immediately come to mind when envisioning deadly overflows. Two liquid manure mishaps, however, were among the top-10 manmade poisonous spills of all time, according to “Wave Goodbye: 10 of the World’s Worst Toxic Floods.” The rivers of cow pies and hog poo were as lethal as coal ash slurry and mining waste tainted with arsenic and cadmium.
Besides harmful chemicals, the Natural Resources Defense Council reports that animal waste contains disease-causing pathogens, such as Salmonella, E. coli, Cryptosporidium, and fecal coliform, which can be 10 to 100 times more concentrated than in human waste. More than 40 diseases can be transferred to humans through manure.
Perhaps we don’t think of animal manure that way because it was once a natural byproduct of raising livestock, back when most farms had no more than a couple dozen cows, sheep or hogs. I can still recall the sensation of cow patties squishing between my naked kid-sized toes as we herded the neighbor’s modest 35 or so Holsteins from the pasture in the 1960s.
I didn’t much like sliminess when tramping through a fresh patty, although it was natural, green and usually involved no more than one or two pies per episode. Incidentally, we also cupped drinking water with our bare hands from the creek in that pasture and weren’t later curled over with gastroenteritis.
That family farm, like thousands of others, no longer exists. A subdivision occupies the land, while industrial-sized factory farms produce milk elsewhere. Not only has farm size exploded in recent decades, with many recording animal populations in the tens of thousands, not mere hundreds. But, the number and amount of hazardous chemicals found in the manure produced there has also increased. Running barefoot through it is not advised.
Horse manure, for example, responsible for damaging crops and home gardens after normal application, has been found to contain herbicides that were traced back to the horses’ feed. Manure also contains high concentrations of phosphorous and nitrates. So, when a flood of the stuff accidentally runs across the landscape, plants and creatures above ground are not the only things harmed. Manure spills kill wildlife in natural waterways and contaminate drinking water supplies in wells, aquifers and reservoirs.
When thousands of gallons of manure flow from a lagoon into a nearby creek, the farmer is commonly blamed and fined. In many cases, however, the containment systems failed – a faulty or nonexistent check valve, broken pipes, cracked concrete walls, soil berms saturated by rain or lagoons overflowing by excessive rainfall. Government agencies established to protect the environment have also been accused of not doing enough to prevent catastrophes. In December 2014, for example, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources advised residents of a manure spill that could contaminate water wells, but did not mention the number of gallons or how the spill happened.
Some recent mishaps include 25 million gallons of hog waste spilling from a North Carolina farm in 1995, 3 million gallons of cow manure at a New York dairy farm, 640,000 gallons of manure spilled from a Wisconsin dairy in 2014, 300,000 gallons of manure at Arlington Agricultural Research Station in Wisconsin in 2013 and 200,000 gallons of hog manure spilled in Illinois in 2009 . These are but a few of the disasters filling the news and damaging ecosystems.
Meanwhile, whatever the cause, water everywhere becomes tainted. Sadly, we can’t wish ourselves back to a pristine world of unspoiled, crystal clear water and harmless cow patties. We can, however, protect ourselves with a simple household water filter system.
And be sure to wear your shoes in the barn.