USDA should stop environmentally risky ‘depopulation’ methods, advocates say

The Department of Agriculture should restrict certain animal disposal methods used by farmers who euthanize herds during the Covid-19 pandemic, and make information about those “depopulation” events public, says a coalition of environmental groups that petitioned the agency Monday.

“Not only will the requested rules help prevent catastrophic harm to people and the environment, they also will provide people living near mass carcass disposal sites with the information they need to protect themselves,” the petition reads.

The petitioners’ target is the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, an agency of USDA that is supporting producers as they navigate an ongoing backup of animals due to meatpacking shutdowns and slowdowns caused by worker illness and absenteeism. The groups petitioning APHIS include the Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Earthjustice, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and several others.

Certain methods that farmers use to “depopulate” (kill) animals on their farms pose a serious environmental risk, the groups say. Some 10 million hens, for instance, have been killed by smothering them with a water-based foam that contains per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, commonly known as “forever chemicals.” If buried, those carcasses could leach the toxic chemicals into ground and drinking water.

“If these unsafe disposal practices continue, there will be a cumulative impact on communities,” says Valerie Baron, senior attorney with NRDC. “Without transparency, communities can’t take measures to protect themselves.”

To that end, the petitioners want APHIS to publish a permanent, searchable database with information including where animal depopulation has occurred, what methods were used, and what federal support was provided. They also want the agency to ban mass burials of euthanized animals in unlined pits, as well as on-farm incineration of animal carcasses.

Communities living near large-scale animal confinement facilities have been found to have heightened exposure to noxious smells, polluted drinking water, and higher rates of respiratory illness. Those risks could be exacerbated by the upcoming hurricane season, which could cause flooding of burial pits, as well as the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic that can have severe effects the respiratory system, advocates say.

“We know that these practices can put people at risk,” says Alexis Andiman, staff attorney with Earthjustice. “We’re really concerned about that happening right now in the midst of a global pandemic.”

Though the nation’s meatpacking plants have mostly resumed operations, ongoing worker illness and absenteeism continues to affect processing capacity. Currently, as many as 2 million hogs are backed up on farms across the country, according to industry experts. The pork industry has warned that 10 million hogs could be killed on farms by September and has requested billions in federal support for affected producers.

Some methods of depopulation, including shooting, gassing, or blunt force trauma, have been criticized as inhumane by animal welfare groups. But certain disposal methods carry environmental risk as well, according to a 2015 environmental impact assessment by APHIS. Unlined burial and incineration “have the greatest impacts to the environment,” and should be used only “after carefully weighing risk factors.” Burial of carcasses in unlined pits increases the risk that toxic chemicals and particulates could leach into soil and drinking water, and incineration could detrimentally affect air quality and exacerbate existing air pollution.

Given their risks to the environment, these disposal methods shouldn’t be supported with federal funds, advocates say. “The most immediate thing that APHIS can do is make sure taxpayer money is not supporting what APHIS admits are the most environmentally destructive practices,” says Andiman. The agency’s National Incident Coordination Center has been advising and assisting with depopulation since its creation in May.

The advocates also argue that the government shouldn’t support disposal methods that put a disproportionate burden on the low-income communities of color where large-scale animal confinement facilities are often located. Research has found that these vulnerable communities are already exposed to significantly higher levels of pollution. “APHIS should ensure that the practices it allows do not exacerbate the risks faced by communities of color and lower wealth and rural communities or endanger their environment,” reads the petition.

Andiman says the groups are sympathetic to the emotionally and financially difficult situation confronting producers as they seek to stay afloat amid the pandemic. But she says the industry has “the ability to do better” and that federal agencies overseeing the agriculture sector have to make a stronger effort to protect human health and the environment in managing this crisis. The groups are asking for “the minimum information that we think rural communities need to keep themselves safe,” she says.

“Some of what’s happening really shocks the conscience,” says Baron. “We really have to stop and ask why big agribusiness prefers to conduct these operations under a shroud of secrecy.”

The petitioners have asked for APHIS to respond within seven days.