Nutrient pollution is one of America’s most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems, and is caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the air and water (epa.gov/nutrientpollution/problem.). Nitrogen occurs naturally in the environment, it plays a crucial role in the nitrogen cycle, as well as being the most abundant element in air. Together, nitrogen and phosphorus support the aquatic ecosystem, providing food and habitat for the organisms that live there. The rapid industrialization of farming live stock has contributed to the recent phenomenon of nutrient pollution. Augusta, a coastal town has just experienced a catastrophic hurricane and the local company Good Meat Inc, a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) has flooded. The manure and deceased livestock from the CAFO spreads to the surrounding watershed and soil resulting in large amount of nutrient pollution to the area. Possible methods of treatment to contain and cleanup the site include; constructed wetlands, land farming, and wastewater and drinking water treatment facilities.
Runoff of fertilizers commonly used on lawns and farms, and storm water runoff from cities with trees and urban gardens, are ordinarily forms of non-point source pollution. One of today’s biggest challenges is resolving the negative impact non-point source nutrient pollution is having on the environment, along with human and animal health. Some consequences of nutrient pollution include; massive algal blooms, dead zones, and health concerns.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explains that harmful algal blooms (HABs) “occur when colonies of algae—simple photosynthetic organisms that live in the sea and freshwater—grow out of control while producing toxic or harmful effects on people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals, and birds” (noaa.gov). Nutrient pollution plays a major role in the development of dead zones, areas with little dissolved oxygen to sustain marine life. Nutrients from runoff and wastewater emissions into streams stimulate an overgrowth of algae that depletes the available oxygen needed to support healthy marine life. Health concerns including; rashes, stomach or liver illness, respiratory problems, and neurological affects, can occur when drinking or swimming in water affected by harmful algal blooms (epa.gov/nutrientpollution/effects-human-health.). An illness known as blue baby syndrome occurs when infants drink water high in nitrates, symptoms include shortness of breath and blue tinted skin.
Do you ever wonder where the burger and chicken nuggets you just ordered at your favorite restaurant come from? Chances are they came from an animal feeding operation or AFO. AFOs congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area (usda.gov). The animals have very little room to move, they do not graze in pastures and field, instead the feed is brought to the animals. There are approximately 450,000 AFOs in the United States (usda.gov). A CAFO, like Good Meat Inc, is a concentrated animal feeding operation. The USDA states defines a CAFO as having more than “1000 animal units (an animal unit is defined as an animal equivalent of 1000 pounds live weight and equates to 1000 head of beef cattle, 700 dairy cows, 2500 swine weighing more than 55 lbs., 125 thousand broiler chickens, or 82 thousand laying hens or pullets) confined on site for more than 45 days during the year” (usda.gov). Any AFO, regardless of size, that discharges manure or wastewater into a pond, stream, or any other form of waterway is considered a CAFO and are regulated by the EPA under the Clean Water Act.
The Clean Water Act (CWA), originally the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, initially focused on grants for building municipal wastewater treatment systems. Now it focuses on permitting discharges from point sources and is increasingly being used to address non-point sources of water pollution including agricultural and urban runoff (Standard Handbook of Hazardous Waste Treatment and Disposal). CAFOs are considered point sources by the Clean Water Act [Section 502(14)] and must comply with the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting program. The NPDES permit program, created in 1972 by the Clean Water Act (CWA), helps address water pollution by regulating point sources that discharge pollutants into any body of water (epa.gov/npdes).
Tons of animal waste is generated by CAFOs, the waste is deposited on the floor by the animals, where it is periodically washed between slats in the floor into a system of trenches and pipes beneath the buildings. The waste is usually directed to lagoons or retention ponds where anaerobic treatment can occur. The waste is also applied to fields by surface spraying, spreading, or in some cases subsurface injection. From here the concentrated waste can enter the environment through surface runoff or groundwater infiltration. Regional concentrations of CAFOs create circumstances in which large imbalances of waste production versus waste assimilation capacity can arise.
- “1.1.1 BACKGROUND AND OVERVIEW.” Standard Handbook of Hazardous Waste Treatment and Disposal, by Harry Freeman, Second ed., McGraw-Hill, 1998, p. 1.5.
- “About NPDES.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 29 Nov. 2016, www.epa.gov/npdes/about-npdes. Accessed 11/26/2018
- “Natural Resources Conservation Service.” What Is Soil Conservation? | NRCS, www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/plantsanimals/livestock/afo/. Accessed 11/26/2018
- “The Effects: Human Health.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 10 Mar. 2017, www.epa.gov/nutrientpollution/effects-human-health. Accessed 11/25/2018
- “The Problem.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 10 Mar. 2017, www.epa.gov/nutrientpollution/problem. Accessed 11/25/2018
- US Department of Commerce, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Harmful Algal Blooms.” NOAA’s National Ocean Service, 16 Nov. 2009, oceanservice.noaa.gov/hazards/hab/. Accessed 11/25/2018