Factory Farms, Dirty Water, and the Bible: Part One
Zombie Jamboree in Texas

Factory Farms, Dirty Water, and the Bible: Part Two

Today's blog post is part two of two (part one is here) by Mark Winne about the environmental and social impact of factory dairy farming. Winne is the author of Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty.

This is part two of a two-part story. Read part one here.

The Power and the Politics of Big Dairy

Nothing gets as big as the dairy industry in New Mexico without political support and the strategic exercise of economic power.  The hardhat adorned photo of New Mexico's Governor Bill Richardson, proudly displayed by the New Mexico Dairy Producers Association at statewide agricultural expositions, breaking ground at the Clovis cheese plant is testimony to political support for the industry. In the words of Cindy Padilla, [former] Director of the Water and Waste Management Division of the NM Environment Department (NMED), the state agency responsible for issuing and monitoring dairy wastewater discharge permits, "our agency must balance the need for economic development with environmental protection."  The question, however, is precisely where is that balance.

Under the provisions of the U.S. Clean Water Act a prospective dairy operator in New Mexico must first obtain a wastewater discharge permit from the NMED. The evaluation of the application is based solely on the conditions at the proposed site of the dairy farm and representations made by the applicant. The NMED does not evaluate conditions in the surrounding area such as the number of dairy farms already in existence, the proximity of those farms to that of the permit applicant, or the total impact that a certain number of farms could have on the public's health or environment.  In fact, according to Ms. Padilla, there is no upward limit on the number of permits the department can issue, which means the number of dairy farms is only limited by the amount of land and water rights dairymen can purchase.

Air quality oversight fares even worse. In spite of the concerns raised by residents of Curry and Roosevelt counties, including the high rates of asthma, the NMED does not monitor air quality anywhere in New Mexico except in the state's southern-most region. According to department spokesman, John Goldstein, "we have no plans to monitor air quality in dairy areas at this time."

The quality of groundwater monitoring and enforcement is also in question. According to Paul Elders, director of Concerned Citizens for Clean Water, "New Mexico may have stringent groundwater regulations on the books, but the state falls down with respect to monitoring and enforcement. They just don't have the staff or the funds." Based on the number of groundwater contamination violations that are attributed to dairies, this appears to be the case.  Maura Hanning, an employee of NMED, said in the NM Business Journal, "of the 194 permitted dairies [in New Mexico], about 61 have recorded discharges exceeding state regulations." Though asked on three separate occasions for an updated number of groundwater violations by dairies, Ms. Padilla did not respond to the request. One former employee who spoke off the record said that there are "hundreds of violations," and that in fact groundwater nitrate levels above the allowed level of 10 milligrams per liter may exist beneath every dairy in the state.

[Update: As of 2007, NMED records showed that over half of the state's dairy farms were in violation of their permitted groundwater contamination levels. One dairy in the south eastern portion of the state reported nitrate levels that were 19 times higher than the permitted standard. As a result of a continued flaunting of state regulations by dairies, NMED has issued letters to at least 10 farms (the actual number is assumed to be higher as of late 2008) requiring the dairies to come into compliance with the standard. I was told by one NMED staffer that they could issue many more letters, but their low staffing levels limit their capacity to monitor and enforce compliance.]

Attempts by the dairy industry to suppress research and public discussion have had a chilling effect on scientists as well as citizens. Just ask Dr. Stephen D. Arnold of the Department of Health Science at New Mexico State University.  Research that he conducted in 1999 on the impact of dairy farms on the state's southern region found the following: an association between higher rates of diarrhea and asthma among children living near dairies, considerably higher number of flies in areas around dairies, and groundwater contamination at all of the study's sample dairy sites. The levels of contamination exceeded quality standards for nitrate, ammonia, chloride, and TDS (total dissolved solids). When his data was released in professional journals, the dairy industry issued vehement protests stating that the university should not be supporting this kind of research. "The university administration was supportive of me," said Arnold, "but I decided at that point that I had other things to do."

When asked if he thought that more research needed to be done, Arnold responded, "Absolutely. You can't tell me that if you put 30,000 cows along a 14-mile stretch of land, that after many years it doesn't have an impact." Nobody at NMED was aware at the time of his research until I told them about it. Nor was the agency aware that the American Public Health Association had issued a strong, carefully documented statement urging a national moratorium on all further CAFO development until a full environmental and health impact assessment was conducted. 

Perhaps the influence of the dairy industry on New Mexico is summed up best by Rod Ventura, a [former] staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center: "The dairy industry is so powerful in this state that it doesn't help to have science on your side."

The Cows Come Home To Roost

One day a few years ago Otis Davis was suddenly confronted with the consequences of his highly successful promotion efforts. In a strange twist of fate (he might say that is was a sign from the Almighty) a 640-acre tract across the road from a property that Otis had formerly owned and developed for home sites was about to be turned into three dairy farms. He tried to reason with the dairyman, a person he had known for some time, but to no avail. Due to the farmer's intransigence, Otis was forced to bring the dispute to court. "Why should these dairies push us around, I asked myself? Even though I didn't own the land anymore, if I didn't stand up for them who would? So I hired a former New Mexico attorney general, spent $50,000 and three years of my life fighting this thing."

In what may be the only occasion in eastern New Mexico when a dairy development was stopped cold, Otis succeeded in court. "My lawyer brought a sample of manure lagoon liquid in a bottle to court. The judge was so grossed out he found in our favor. We had proved that the farm's wastewater would percolate into the aquifer, and that there would be an increase in flies, odor, truck traffic, and lights. We proved that these farms would have an adverse affect on the quality of life. So here I am, a person who put up $10,000 to bring the dairy industry to town, and a few years later spent $50,000 on this lawsuit."

"I'm not against these dairies per se," Otis makes clear. "By God, we need the jobs they provide. I know many of the dairymen, most of whom are family oriented and good Christians. But they have got to be more responsible. These dairies are not islands unto themselves because what they do affects us all." He pauses for a moment as if searching deep inside himself for some revelation, and says finally, "We don't realize what we're doing to each other. We just can't hand this problem off to our children!"

Big Dairy's End Game

Dr. Charles Benbrook is an agricultural economist and former executive director of the Board of Agriculture for the National Academy of Sciences. He has devoted a considerable amount of his professional career to studying the dairy industry, whose growth in the west he finds "very perplexing." Benbrook singles out water and the gargantuan scale of factory dairy farms for special scorn. He says that, "if the dairy industry in the Southwest was forced to pay the real cost of water, it would quickly move to the Upper Midwest and Northeast where rainfall is plentiful." But, instead, the price of water for western farms is so cheap that it doesn't even cover the management cost, let alone the replacement cost.  Alfalfa, for instance, the key forage for dairy cows, requires one-acre foot of water to produce, and the bales are then trucked hundreds of miles to dairy farms. Grazing a commercially sufficient number of dairy cows on grass, as nature intended, is simply not economically feasible in New Mexico where rainfall is so sparse. 

So how long do the factory dairy farms of the Southwest have? Benbrook says the expansion of large dairy herds in the West, especially to produce processed dairy products like cheese, "doesn't make sense and is patently unsustainable because water will become too costly, and in not less than five years, but surely no more than 20, the dairy waste stream will overwhelm the absorptive capacity of the local environment."

Eastern New Mexico is indeed part of the Bible belt. A drive down its county roads takes you past churches and billboards that admonish sinners in more ways than Christianity ever intended. Perhaps it is no surprise that in such a place where money and power often invoke religion, that neither science nor independent citizen action should be held in high regard. Nevertheless, men of faith like Otis Davis are worried; men of science like Stephen Arnold and Charles Benbrook are anxious; and citizens across the high plains are just plain tired of the stink, the dry wells, and the social and economic disruption in communities they no longer recognize.

If there is any good news here, it is the hope that salvation may follow revelation. "Fear God, and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come" is known to many in these counties where prosperity sits precariously on the shifting sands of the world.  There is time, though not much, for the players in this drama to stop their slide to an environmental Gomorrah. Knowledge motivates, but it may be the fear of the fire and brimstone that ultimately ignites action.

This is part two of a two-part story. Read part one here.