June 5, 2009

Sierra & Tierra

It Stinks to High Heaven

By Javier Sierra

When distributing Mexico’s portion of the “blessings” of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the town of La Gloria (Heaven) got the hellish part of the deal.

In that town in Veracruz State arrived a nasty gift brought by the U.S.-based multinational Smithfield Farms, which took full advantage of NAFTA’s terrible flaws to set up a pig factory called Granjas Carroll.

The facility —I should say that chamber of horrors—processes the meat from 800,000 pigs each year, producing hundreds of thousands of tons of fecal matter, equivalent to the amount generated by a mid-sized city.

This untreated waste ends up in several fetid open-pit lagoons, covered by clouds of flies, which keep the residents’ health and well-being under constant siege. In April, that siege proved to be unsustainable.

On April 5, Mexico City’s La Jornada newspaper, quoting municipal officials, reported that pollution coming from Granjas Carroll’s fecal lagoons “started an epidemic of respiratory infections in the town of La Gloria.”

“Some 400 people have received medical attention already,” the paper added. “However, 60 percent of La Gloria’s 3,000 inhabitants are already suffering from flu, pneumonia and bronchopneumonia.”

CNN has identified Edgar Hernández, a five-year-old La Gloria resident who survived the illness, as “patient zero” of the swine flu pandemic that spread like wildfire throughout Mexico.

Even so, there still is no clear evidence that the swine flu pandemic originated at Granjas Carroll. But what we do know is that these horrific facilities have proven to be a certain threat to public health ever since they were first developed more than two decades ago.

The fecal lagoons that characterize these animal factories are loaded with toxic substance like nitrites, ammonia and sulfur compounds, which poison the air, water and soil.

According to a study conducted in several North Carolina communities, residents living close to one of these animal factories raising 6,000 pigs complained of headaches, nasal irritation, sore throat, persistent cough, diarrhea and burning eyes.

Another study by Duke University’s Psychiatry Department found that people living in a two-mile radius of a swine facility experienced high levels of tension, depression, anger and fatigue.

In yet another North Carolina community, the stench coming from nearby fecal lagoons was so intense that paint from houses peeled right off the walls.

The list goes on and on. And no one should be surprised because this industry, one of the country’s dirtiest, generates 130 million tons of fecal and urine matter each year, which in too many cases end up in rivers and coasts causing terrible environmental damage.

One of the most notorious cases took place in 1997, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) levied a $12.5-million fine on Smithfield Farms for discharging slaughterhouse waste in violation of the Clean Water Act into the Pagan River, part of the Chesapeake Bay Basin.

But there is a third victim of these animal factories: their workers. Sixty-five percent of this labor force is Latino, and in most cases, undocumented Latinos, willing to work anywhere, including these places, so despised by American workers.

This industry, which causes more work accidents than any other in the country, too often treats its employees even worse than the animals it exploits.

“It’s easy to find replacements, and if you get hurt, you’re out,” says Francisco Risso, director of the Workers’ Center, a non-profit organization that assists immigrant workers in this industry in Morgantown, North Carolina. “And since the majority of them are undocumented, they are even more vulnerable to labor abuses.”

Risso insists in order to improve the working conditions of this industry it is essential that Congress pass the Employee Free Choice Act so workers can freely unionize and show strength to bargain for their salaries and working conditions.

Meanwhile, for these workers, heaven is as far away as that town in Veracruz, Mexico.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Visit www.sierraclub.org/ecocentro

Return to the Frontpage