Is Your Manure Pile a Toxic Waste Site?

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Don't laugh. A new standoff is forming on Washington's Capitol Hill and the outcome may affect all of us, and the countryside of the USA.

How does your garden grow© Maybe with less horse manure if new laws have their way. Photo by Andy Arthur.

How does your garden grow© Maybe with less horse manure if new laws have their way. Photo by Andy Arthur.

At stake: the economics of farming and the elements of farm management from the smallest horse stable in the backyard to the biggest agribusiness super-dairy.

Legislators from the Farm Belt states have introduced a bill in the House of Representatives to exempt manure (agricultural "waste") from being classified as "toxic" waste.

Environmentalists disagree.

A few years ago, I watched as the boarding stable where my horse lived had to install a concrete pad on which to pile spent bedding. The farm has been there for (my guess) 300 or so years but laws passed only recently declared that it was too close to the ocean. The 100-year old farm owner went along with the edict.

Fast forward two years and one of the most amusing stories in our local newspaper began when a man was apprehended stealing some manure from out behind the barn. He turned out to be a professor at one of the most prestigious universities in America; he needed some of the farm's "toxic waste" for the vast perennial beds at his oceanfront estate down the road.

Was he "stealing" since it was "waste?" The lawyers drove into town, along with the media.

When was the last time you heard of anyone filling a Range Rover with toxic waste from out behind the local chemical plant?

I hope the horse world takes note of the goings-on in Washington. (I know that the American Horse Council is keeping an eye on this, thanks to their 9 March press release, but many legal issues over manure are on the municipal, county or state level.)

The legislation in Washington relates to legal interpretation of the Superfund law, which was enacted to clean up huge toxic waste disasters like New York's Love Canal. Co-sponsored by 85 legislators, mainly from Midwest states, the new bill exempts manure from that law. "Exemption" is a vast over-simplification of the stakes, of course.

While this sounds logical, the Sierra Club obviously disagrees. They note that large farms in the United States produce an estimated 500 million tons of manure each year, or roughly three times the amount of waste produced by humans. Unlike human waste, most livestock waste is not treated, and as the manure decomposes, it produces toxic gases such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. The operations can also pollute water with nitrogen and phosphorus and other materials.

I don't live in the Midwest, where farms are apparently more like small cities and the accumulated manure may be of valid concern to local air or water quality. Around here, most people would prefer to balance out the negative aspects of manure piles with the value of open land and at least a hint of agriculture in the land-use mix. People are pretty critical of the aesthetics of manure piles until spring comes and they need some fertilizer for their gardens.

I honestly don't think that this legislation will have much, if any, effect on small farms, but it could affect racetracks, big horse shows, or rodeos. State and local laws are what really matter, but this federal legislation could set a precedent or "send a message" about agriculture's role in the environment. When it comes to horses, it always comes back to whether most horse "operations" are actually recreational land use or true agriculture. The agriculture interests seem to alternately embrace horses and then hold them at an arm's length, depending on the issue.

This legislation will be duked out between the cattle-chicken-swine producers and the environmentalists but it could have fallout for everyone who has a manure pile...or depends on their local horses to make their gardens grow. Stay tuned.