Saturday, February 25, 2006

Naked City comes to Arkansas (and the rural south)

There used to be (1958) a TV police drama set in New York called Naked City. Every episode ended: "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them."

Well the city has moved to the country in the form of huge aggregations of chickens and in Arkansas alone the amount of manure produced by these poultry farms is equivalent to the waste of 8 million people.

Poultry? When we think of backyard poultry we think of China, southeast asia, Indonesia -- the places where bird flu has become endemic. But the US?
A person driving through the South might notice the chicken houses dotting the hills and flatlands. He might marvel at the larger ones, as long as a football field. He might react to their gagging stench for a moment, and then forget as he travels on. But those who live near the structures -- stuffed with as many as 25,000 chickens each -- combat the odor and health hazards daily.

"There's a horrible odor, a stench, and I have flies and rodents digging in, trying to get into my house," says Bernadine Edwards, whose 39-acre farm near Owensboro, Ky., is surrounded by 108 chicken houses within a two-mile radius. "It is unbelievable." (Suzi Parker in Grist Magazine via alternet)
The growers of these animals (and their hapless neighbors) are as much victim as exploiter. Many have invested their life savings and more, borrowing heavily from huge bird producers like Tyson, to scrape out a back breaking living in destitute rural areas where there is little work and less hope.
The companies provide local growers, who work under contract, with chicks, feed, medicine, and transportation. Growers take care of the rest, investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in construction, maintenance, and labor costs. When the company requires upgrades, the costs fall to the growers. The massive amounts of manure, too, are their responsibility. (In Arkansas alone, chicken farms produce an amount of waste each day equal to that produced by 8 million people.) Payment is results-oriented, based on measures like total weight gain of the flock. It's a system, says the United Food and Commercial Workers, that leaves 71 percent of growers earning below poverty-level wages.

If growers protest, companies can cancel their contracts, leaving farmers responsible for incurred debt, says Laura Klauke, director of contract agriculture reform at the North Carolina-based Rural Advancement Foundation International. And that debt can be substantial: since banks in the region will more readily loan money for poultry houses than other types of agriculture, Klauke says, some farmers put everything on the line, mortgaging their property to make a living this way.
This is both an environmental justice and a public health issue. The industry is not unionized, has developed very rapidly, and is largely unregulated. Many politicians are in the industry's back pocket:
Last year, Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson (D) filed suit against Tyson, Cargill, and several other poultry companies, seeking to stop water pollution caused in his state by soiled chicken litter dumped in Arkansas. Polluted runoff, also known as non-point source pollution, is the biggest remaining water pollution problem in the U.S., according to the EPA, which cites agriculture as the largest source of such pollution. Edmondson described the problem as "an economic development issue, an agricultural issue, and a quality-of-life issue." Not to be outdone, Arkansas Attorney General Mike Beebe (D) -- who is running for governor -- countered in November by suing the state of Oklahoma directly, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to prohibit Oklahoma from forcing his state's poultry farmers to adhere to the stricter standards. Both cases are still pending.
Shame on Mike Beebe. But of course he has no shame. What of the workers?
"In rural America, the poultry companies can get workers for a song, and the workers are so grateful to get the jobs," says Jackie Nowell of the United Food and Commercial Workers. These workers -- usually poor, and often African American or Hispanic -- "are exposed to feces [and] any disease the chicken has," Nowell says. "There are also horrible levels of dust and dander inside these houses."

Nowell adds that researchers in the region are currently exploring the possible crossover of various viruses from poultry to humans, like avian flu. "That's a real concern. These workers and people who live near these houses will be on ground zero of an outbreak."

Workers in poultry processing plants also face serious dangers from machinery, carpal tunnel syndrome, and health hazards such as contaminated microorganisms and dust. "There are huge health and safety violations in every plant," says Jennifer Rosenbaum, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. In 2004, for example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued citations to Tyson for alleged violations after an employee was asphyxiated when he inhaled hydrogen sulfide, a gas created by decaying organic matter. OSHA fined the company $436,000.

Poultry companies "hire relatively low-income people, immigrants who have less of an understanding of rights and health issues," Rosenbaum says. Simply put, she says, the companies are hurting the South's small towns while they fatten their own wallets.
Now bird flu looms. It is a potential organizing tool for all concerned. It's good for organizing workers into badly need unions. It's a good issue for environmentalists who can point to a Naked City's worth of fecal effluent in Mike Beebe-head's state alone, feces that can carry H5N1 virus. It's a potent argument for neighbors who have had their land devalued and their lives made miserable by the stench of out of control poultry producers. And it should be a good reason for more public health professionals to sound the alarm that these disgraceful operations are health disasters waiting to happen.

On the other hand, if bird flu strikes this squalid industry, we are all going to get plucked. More than eight million stories. Sad stories.