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Major pig farmer ordered to clean up ‘toxic waste’

SHARE Major pig farmer ordered to clean up ‘toxic waste’

HENNESSEY, Okla. — In the red dirt of central Oklahoma, where tractors lumber until dark and the stench of 8,800 sows clings to the breeze, manure has a new name: solid waste.

In an unprecedented move, the Environmental Protection Agency last month ordered a major hog producer to obey the same law that governs industrial and municipal pollution.

The consequences may be more than just a label change. The hog industry fears the order could touch every hog pen, chicken coop and cow pasture in rural America.

"It's a suggestion that manure is a toxic waste," said Al Tank, head of the National Pork Producers Council, which opposes using laws regulating hazardous and solid waste against hog farmers.

The EPA took action after discovering excessive nitrates in the private water well of Ana Rangel, who was 8 1/2 months pregnant at the time. High levels of nitrates can cause illness or death, particularly in infants.

Monitoring wells at hog waste lagoons in the area were found to have nitrate levels that were 10 times the acceptable level.

Using the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the EPA declared that the leaking effluent was, in essence, solid waste. The act typically applies to hazardous and solid wastes from industry or municipal water treatment plants.

The agency ordered Seaboard Farms Inc. and former owner PIC International to investigate and clean up any contamination.

"The whole idea is to protect public health," said Tim Jones, an EPA lawyer. "Whether we know conclusively if it's coming from a lagoon is not as important as protecting health."

Seaboard's supporters say that's unfair. Wells in this farming region have tested high for nitrates before, and the pork industry points to fertilizer used by wheat farmers as a source.

"There's a nitrate problem in this area. Is it related to hogs? We don't see the proof," said Shawn Lepard, executive director of ProAg, an Oklahoma lobby group that supports corporate farming.