Humane Society of the U.S. targets ammonia emissions from manure lagoon
By TRACIE CONE
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Neighbors of a massive Central California egg farm complained for years about eye-burning ammonia fumes and a horrific foul stench. This week, a federal judge awarded them $500,000 after a jury found the place a nuisance.
The Humane Society of the United States brought the case in 2008 on behalf of eight neighbors, who complained that a 13-acre waste lagoon serving 600,000 chickens at Olivera Egg Ranch near French Camp fouled the air.
While the animal welfare advocates fought the case on federal and California air pollution violations, it was part of their larger mission to focus attention on problems they say are created by factory farming.
"There is a link between massive, intensive confinement of hundreds of thousands of animals and the type of pollution and nuisance presented in this case," said Jonathan Lovvorn, the Humane Society's senior vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation. "The reality is that these facilities are bad for the animals, bad for the environment and bad for the community."
The original complaint also accused Olivera Egg Ranch of a more serious violation of federal hazardous waste statutes. Defense attorney Russ Wunderli stressed that Sacramento-based U.S. District Judge John Mendez dismissed that part of the claim before it went to the jury.
"We feel at least grateful that the court decided in our favor in the emissions of hazardous substances," he said.
The jury also awarded far less than the $4.8 million plaintiffs originally sought, Wunderli noted.
The chickens at Olivera generated about 133,000 pounds of manure daily. The ammonia released as it breaks down in the nearby lagoon is considered hazardous to people and animals.
For years neighbors had complained about the stench, and about burning eyes and nausea they said was caused by fumes emanating from the lagoon.
Attorneys said the plaintiffs, who were assigned damages by the jury based on their proximity to the lagoon, could not comment until the entire case is resolved. They plan to ask the court for injunctive relief to force changes.
Changes already are taking place, Wunderli said. Owner Edward Olivera is researching technology that could add a methane digester to convert the waste into fuel.
"He has been and continues to be making things better out there," Wunderli said.
Originally the Hayers Egg Farm, the land has been home to laying hens since the 1970s. In the 1990s Olivera bought the farm and began expanding the facility, which now can hold up to 700,000 hens.
As far as recent changes, Lovvorn said that none have resulted yet in changes that have improved the lives of his clients.
"There's only so much you can do with a facility of that size," he said.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.