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Waste from hog farms causes uproar in Iron

Anti-hog farm activist True Ott croaks into the telephone that he's sick and getting sicker. "It's probably the swine flu," he says, only half joking.

Pigs, and how to keep them out of Iron County, consume the Cedar City resident these days. And Circle Four Farms, the giant hog conglomerate pushing into a corner of the county, is his bane.But Ott's efforts to stop the country's largest factory farm from getting even larger are in trouble. His Concerned Residents for Sustained Agriculture just let its attorney go for lack of funds, jeopardizing its challenge to Circle Four's most recent waste water discharge permits.

The opposition's troubles are untimely and unfortunate, say researchers concerned about the long-term impacts of the giant farms.

At a time when Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency are expressing interest in regulating the industry, Circle Four's announced plan to someday be the world's largest hog farm - cranking out 2.5 million slaughter hogs a year - appears to be moving apace.

"No question, we're overdriving our headlights here," said University of Iowa professor Kelly Donham, director of the Iowa Center for Agricultural Safety and Health and one of the foremost experts on health and safety aspects of large-scale swine production.

Three years ago, just as Circle Four was settling into Beaver County - just north of Iron County in the southwestern Utah desert - Donham helped organize a symposium to explore just what is known about the impacts of gigantic hog factories.

Certainly, everybody knew about the odor problems posed by the reeking, open-air sewage lagoons. And recent disastrous spills of hog waste on the East Coast were a huge concern.

But there were other worries: disturbing evidence that huge amounts of nitrogen, in the form of ammonia drifting from the lagoons, was affecting plant life and water quality; that the waste - including some disease-causing viruses and microbes - might seep into ground water; that workers in the giant hog confinements were showing increased respiratory ail-ments.

"Mostly, we learned that we just didn't know enough," Donham said.

Which is why he and some other scientists who participated in the symposium, as well as beleaguered regulators in other states, find Utah's willingness to let Circle Four's expansion proceed unabated the height of folly.

"I'll tell you what I told a (U.S.) Senate subcommittee two weeks ago," said Dewey Botts, director of North Carolina's Division of Soil and Water Conservation. "As policymakers, we are paid to take care of natural resources. Our job is to protect the citizens from odors, from even a threat to the quality of their ground and surface water. And we have failed here. And it may be that your people out there have failed as well."

Circle Four, a consortium of four of the East Coast's biggest hog growers, has roughly 260,000 hogs on site, generating about 600,000 market hogs a year. Its managers have said they plan to expand to four times that size.

Hogs produce between two and five times the amount of waste as humans. If Circle Four expands as projected, it would be like pouring the raw waste from a city the size of Los Angeles into a hole in Utah's west desert.

Circle Four's general manager, Steve Pollmann, would not discuss future expansion, except to concede the company is proceeding with construction on two 10,000-sow barns in Iron County.

Pollmann insists those sows will be market hogs, although the industry usually uses such farrowing facilities for breeding and ex-pan-sion.

"The owners will evaluate the market" before deciding to build further, he said. "It's premature."

There is little question among state regulators that Circle Four intends to expand. The regulators are being inundated by applications for groundwater discharge per-mits.

"They're coming fast and furious," said Mark Novak, an environmental scientist for the Utah Division of Water Quality. "It's hard to keep track of all of the lagoons sometimes."

Indeed, Circle Four now operates 82 sewage lagoons, ranging in size from about 6 million gallons to 27 million gallons. That's more than all of the other regulated industries the division oversees combined. If the farms expand as planned, the number could quad-ru-ple.

Moreover, at the behest of Ott and his group, the state is now requiring permits for small lagoons it formerly didn't regulate, and is also requiring the division to approve construction of the concrete pits that catch the waste beneath the confinement barns.

But it is the reeking, open-air sewage lagoons that are the focus of concern for Ott and his small group of protesters. Ott says they are a witch's brew of microbes and tox-ins.

His group has challenged the Iron County permits, and a hearing before the state Water Quality Board is set for June. Rob Adams, a former Circle Four manager, sits on the board.

Even some of the regulators aren't entirely confident the lagoons - referred to by the industry as the "best available technology" - will remain safe for the 30 years the company says they will.

"I'm not convinced the design of the liners is something we can rely on totally," Novak said. "But the engineers seem satisfied, and we do have the monitoring wells" near the largest lagoons.

Joe Rudek, a marine biologist formerly with North Carolina's Division of Natural Resources and now with that state's Environmental Defense Fund, points out that "this so-called `best available technology' is still nothing more than a hole in the ground."

The state of Utah has required Circle Four to line each lagoon with compacted clay and, in most cases, a giant sheet of heavy plastic. The DWQ and the U.S. Geological Survey say there is little chance the waste could ever find its way into the deep underground aquifer.

But University of Northern Iowa professor Laura Jackson, who wrote the ground water report for Donham's symposium, believes Novak's concerns are justified. The report said that even the best engineered sewage lagoons can leak. Clay liners can fracture with cold or be penetrated by plant roots or even earthworms. And plastic liners can tear.

More importantly, Jackson said, all of the lagoons "leak up," evaporating vast amounts of nitrogen-laden ammonia into the atmosphere. It is perhaps the largest source of contamination from the lagoons - and the least understood, she said.

The nitrogen, a powerful fertilizer, comes down in rainfall and can wreak havoc on native plant life. It also creates acid rain - a problem so prevalent in Europe that some countries have banned its use.

Nitrogen emissions are not regulated in Utah, but state Division of Air Quality officials are working on measuring the amounts coming from Circle Four to determine if they might - when carried by rainfall - pose a threat to ground water.