Scientists recently announced that the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, an area the size of New Jersey where oxygen levels are too low to sustain most forms of life, is larger than ever. For years, environmentalists have used annual surveys of the dead zone to bring attention to large amounts of agricultural pollution from the nation's breadbasket that flows down the Mississippi River and fuels oxygen-depleting algae blooms in the Gulf.
This year, the message is hitting much closer to home, especially for those living near farmlands.
A new report from the Environmental Working Group shows that the agricultural pollution causing the dead zone is also contaminating drinking water supplies for millions of Americans with potentially dangerous chemicals. Environmental groups particularly blame large-scale meat production, which require huge supplies of industrially grown corn and soy to raise animals to satisfy the nation's appetite for cheap meat.
The US leads the world in meat production. One-third of all land in the continental US is used to grow feed and provide pasture for animals that will be killed for meat, according to the environmental group Mighty Earth. Now that agricultural pollution's impact on drinking water is coming into focus, meat producers such as Tyson Foods are under pressure to set standards that would require large farms in their supply chains to clean up their acts.
"People just naturally pay more attention to the pollution issue in their own backyard than they do [to] pollution issues thousands of miles away," said Matt Rota, senior policy director at the Gulf Restoration Network, a group that works to reduce pollution in the Gulf South.
Chemicals called nitrates and other pollutants can contaminate drinking water sources when fertilizer and manure drain from poorly protected agricultural fields. Drinking water supplies for roughly 200 million Americans in 49 states have some level of nitrate contamination, but the highest levels are found in rural towns surrounded by industrial farms, according to the Environmental Working Group.
Runoff from farm fields finds its way from rural watersheds to the Gulf, providing nutrients for summertime algae blooms that force fish to migrate and kill off smaller creatures at the bottom of the food chain. The dead zone spanned 8,777 square miles off the coast of Louisiana and Texas when marine scientists measured it over the past summer.
Agricultural Pollution Is a Threat to Public Health
Nitrates are naturally found in soil and water, but high levels of exposure have been linked to birth defects, cancer and a dangerous condition known as blue baby syndrome in infants, which results from low levels of oxygen in the blood. Few water supplies in the US have levels of nitrates above the federal limit of 10 parts per million, which was set 25 years ago to prevent blue baby syndrome, but studies have found that the risk of cancer increases at levels as low as 5 parts per million.
Treating polluted water is expensive, and drinking water utilities often use chlorine and other disinfecting treatments when agricultural pollution contaminates sources of drinking water with manure and other pollutants. When these treatment chemicals interact with plant and animal waste, they create potentially dangerous byproducts such as trihalomethanes (THMs), a group of chemicals linked to liver, kidney and intestinal tumors in animals, according to the Environmental Working Group.
The EPA sets limits on the amount of THMs allowed in drinking water, but environmentalists say those limits were based on the technical feasibility of removing the chemicals, not concerns over their long-term toxicity. In 2010, state scientists in California estimated that levels 100 times lower the legal limit would pose a one-in-a-million lifetime risk of cancer.
Nationwide, water supplies in 1,647 communities, serving 4.4 million people, are contaminated with THMs in amounts at least 75 times higher than California's one-in-a-million cancer risk level. In 2014 and 2015, 411 of those communities had levels of THMs at or above the EPA's limits, and two-thirds were found in five states with high levels of agricultural pollution -- Louisiana, California, Oklahoma, Missouri and Texas. (You can find out if THMs and other pollutants are in your water supply using this database.)
Craig Cox, the Environmental Working Group's vice president for agriculture and natural resources, said farmers can take simple steps to reduce agricultural runoff, but too few farmers are taking action. Agricultural trade groups have considerable political clout in Washington, and farmers are exempt from many state and federal environmental regulations. A federal program pays billions of dollars a year to farmers that adopt conservation practices; however, that money does not always support the best pollution control methods.
"Decades of ill-conceived federal farm policy has been a driving factor in this situation we have today that puts millions of American families at risk of drinking tap water contaminated with these dangerous pollutants," Cox said in a statement.
Activists Target Meat Mega-Producers
Environmentalists in the Gulf spent years fighting for tougher regulation of industrial farming to protect waterways from runoff and ultimately reduce the size of the dead zone, even filing an unsuccessful lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for failing to act during the Obama administration. The EPA did introduce eight policy guidelines to help states reduce fertilizer pollution in 2011, but no states have implemented more than two of them because the program is largely voluntarily, according to the Mississippi River Collaborative.
Now that the Trump administration is in charge, prospects for establishing tougher standards are slim at best.
"I don't have a whole lot of confidence that the feds will be taking stronger steps to make sure that nitrogen pollution isn't getting into our drinking [water] supply," Rota told Truthout.
Unable to change farming practices with regulation, activists are now focusing on brand-name companies that buy from industrial farms. Mighty Earth recently mapped high levels of nitrates in Midwestern waterways and found that supply chains for major meat companies were responsible for much of the fertilizer pollution. Tyson Foods, which produces roughly 20 percent of the country's meat supply through brands, such as Jimmy Dean, Hillshire Farms, Ball Park and Sara Lee, stood out from the rest, with major processing facilities in all five states that are top contributors to pollution in the Gulf.
Activists across the country are now calling on Tyson directly, demanding that the company pressure its subsidiaries and suppliers to clean up their acts. Audrey Beedle, a community organizer with the Clean It Up Tyson campaign in Louisiana, said that Tyson's new CEO has shown interest in sustainability, and activists see an opening to hold the company to task. Unlike individual farmers, large companies like Tyson are more responsive to pressure from consumers.
"They are a household name; everybody knows Tyson," Beedle said in an interview. "People want to know what's in their food. They are sick of unchecked corporations."
Activists say there are several methods farms can use to prevent agricultural runoff, including rotating crops with small grains, planting cover crops, optimizing fertilizer applications to prevent runoff and using conservation tillage practices. They are also calling for a moratorium on the further clearing of native prairie ecosystems for industrial farming.
Tyson, which runs meat packaging and processing plants, not farms, claims it's "misleading" to single out one company when water pollution is a problem across the agriculture industry. Nearly 40 percent of corn, for example, is grown to produce ethanol, not meat. In a statement to Truthout, Tyson said that real change on this issue requires "a broad coalition of stakeholders," and the company is working with trade associations and researchers to "promote continuous improvement in how we and our suppliers operate."
Rota said individual farmers generally don't want to cause problems in their own communities or downstream. He thinks they will do the right thing if they are provided with the right solutions and held accountable.
"Farmers aren't bad people, and I don't know of any farmer who goes out to say, 'I'm going to pollute other people's drinking water,'" Rota said. "But they are business people, and they need to be responsible for their businesses."