CANADA

Raising a big stink

Feedlots fuel a heated local debate

MARY NEMETH August 10 1998
CANADA

Raising a big stink

Feedlots fuel a heated local debate

MARY NEMETH August 10 1998

Raising a big stink

CANADA

LETTER FROM LETHBRIDGE, ALTA.

Feedlots fuel a heated local debate

The sun is burning hot, but much of the Prairie north of Lethbridge is a lush green. Irrigation canals fed by the Oldman River crisscross this part of southern Alberta, providing water for huge sprayers that roll across the fields like mammoth metal centipedes. Farmers grow barley here, as well as corn, alfalfa and sugar beets. But this is livestock country, too. Some 520,000 cattle, as well as 180,000 hogs, plus sundry chickens, turkeys, buffalo and sheep, call Lethbridge County home at any one time. A majority of them are located in a 50by 10-km swath of land known as Feedlot Alley, near the city of Lethbridge—the densest concentration of livestock anywhere in Canada. And, increasingly, environmentalists and some local residents are raising a stink about animal waste, voicing concerns about soil and water quality—and about their own health. “Enough is enough,” protested a recent letter in the Lethbridge Herald. “Who needs more beef!”

Consumers do, actually, in eastern Pacific Rim countries. And with Alberta’s proximity to Pacific ports and its abundant supply of feed grains, provincial agriculture officials suggest that feedlot cattle production could grow by more than 50 per cent in the next five years. Hog production could more than triple. Whether the industry can fulfil that market potential depends, at least in part, on how it tackles environmental concerns in places like Feedlot Alley. Livestock operators insist that the vast majority

of them handle the manure their animals produce responsibly. But some Lethbridge County residents have been launching almost a dozen appeals each year against new or expanding livestock facilities. Occasional advisories from the regional health authority to boil drinking water have fanned the flames of discontent. So have charges laid against two livestock operators this spring for allegedly allowing manure to flow into waterways.

Edward Malmberg says he is no environmentalist. “And I’m not knocking the farming industry,” insists the 67year-old retired mechanic. But Malmberg, a resident of Picture Butte in the heart of Feedlot Alley, says that a strong stench has wafted over his town of 1,700 five or she times a year—lingering for days. One early morning last summer was the worst. “Everybody had their windows open because it was 30° C, hotter than a firecracker,” he recalls. The smell “made you sit right up in bed.” Malmberg subsequently organized a petition, and got more than 1,300 signatures calling on the province and Lethbridge County to do something about manure management.

Malmberg says that the air in Picture Butte has improved dramatically since then, in part because one hog farmer began disposing of liquid manure by injecting it into the soil, rather than spraying it on top of his fields. But problems remain. The regional health authority, along with producer asso-

dations, environmentalists and provincial and municipal agencies, are looking into possible adverse health effects of intensive livestock operations. The Chinook Health Region, which includes Feedlot Alley, reports one of the highest rates of gastro-intestinal illnesses in Alberta, more than IV2 times the provincial average. And several studies have shown surface water contaminated with bacteria and parasites. No one has proven a connection between _ intestinal illnesses and intenV ; c sive livestock operations, ac2 cording to Dr. Paul Hasselg back, the region’s medical officer of health—and some operators insist there is none. But, says Hasselback: “There may be a connection between all of this livestock management and the contamination of surface water.”

John Vander Heyden feeds 37,000 head of cattle at Riverside Feeders, three km south of Picture Butte, and at two other feedlots he co-owns. He argues that operators can prevent manure runoff from their land by building adequate lagoons, for example, or working manure into soil right after it is spread. “ThereVe been incidents of certain livestock producers, not necessarily feedlots, that have contaminated some waterways due to ignorance and lack of responsibility,” he allows. “But we as a feedlot industry are very opposed to how they operate.” And in his office, Vander Heyden, 37, has pinned a Lethbridge Herald article to the wall. Published on March 10, it reported that research by a provincial environmental protection official showed outflow from the city of Lethbridge’s waste water treatment plant had far more fecal coliform bacteria and phosphorous than water tested at 15 other sites in the Oldman River basin. (As it would at any city plant, say Lethbridge officials, who insist they are almost always well within licensed limits.)

Environmentalists and health officials concede that urban waste is an issue. But they point out that Lethbridge is upgrading its water treatment plant—and say the livestock sector may now have to do its part. “One operation may not be the problem,” Hasselback says. “And large operations, most of them tend to be excellent.” It is the cumulative effect of so many that is unclear. And that is what has Feedlot Alley mired in the muck of controversy.

MARY NEMETH in Lethbridge