Friday, August 19, 2005

The New York Times Takes a Gutsy Stand Against Excess Cow Manure --- Externalities and Scale Effects

Today There is an Editorial in the New York Times titled "How to Poison a River". The interesting environmental economics embodied in this editorial relates to scale effects. A 30 dairy cow farm is cute. A 3000 dairy cow farm represents a potential environmental "hot spot" if the manure produced in total by these cows is not disposed of properly.

"New York is increasingly a state of mega-dairies, and when things go wrong with such operations, they go wrong in a mega-way. The Marks Farm near Lowville, N.Y., has a herd of some 3,000 dairy cows. Their milk is trucked away regularly, but their liquefied manure is stored in a reservoir with earthen walls. How much manure? Before Aug. 11, the reservoir at the Marks Farm contained some three million gallons. Sometime in the next day, one of the walls blew out and released most of that waste into the Black River, a popular fishing stream and a water source for towns downstream. In case you have trouble visualizing it, three million gallons of liquid manure is roughly equivalent to the water in six Olympic-size swimming pools.
The result has been a major fish kill and the loss - at least temporarily - of all recreation on the river. The mess has been gradually diluted and will finally make its way into Lake Ontario, where it will do the fish there no good. With any luck, what this spill will leave behind is a resolve to place new limits on concentrated animal feeding operations - as these mega-farms are known - in New York. As always, advocates of industrial farming argue that the increase in the number of large dairies and the inevitable loss of small ones are just a result of market forces and economic efficiency. But this has always been nonsense.

Mega-dairies, like huge hog confinement operations, are all too often forced upon local communities against their will. Some New York towns have tried to restrict the expansion of industrial farms nearby. But whenever that happens, the State Department of Agriculture and Markets has sued, or threatened to sue, under the state's Right to Farm Law.

That law made sense when farms were smaller and incapable of causing serious air pollution or a manure spill of massive proportions. Farmers still need to be protected against frivolous lawsuits, but the state needs to get out of the business of forcing industrial farms on communities that don't want them. And when farms operate at the scale of Marks Farm, they need to meet far stricter environmental standards than currently prevail. This disaster should never have had a chance to happen."

INTERESTING POINTS

1. How many people get their water and fish Black River near Lowville, N.Y? While Senatorial Candidates for Hilary's seat should know this, I do not know this. The social costs of this salient event hinge on how many "victims" live near this cow manure event.

2. The New York Times is trying to create a salient event here to change state law. Note that the law they are trying to change is not an environmental law but an agricultural law; the State's "Right to Farm Law". To this Newspaper's credit, they are correctly arguing that an unintended consequence of the increased scale of milk farming is an increased probability of an environmental "disaster" like this one.

3. The obvious solution to lowering the likelihood of future "manure spreads" is to require large milk farms to have double hulled reservoirs just like tankers are sometimes required to --- to lower the probability of an oil spill. In both cases, I would like to know what is the marginal cost of such regulation. But, the New York Times is claiming that these costs would be worth the benefits!

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

2. The New York Times is trying to create a salient event here to change state law. Note that the law they are trying to change is not an environmental law but an agricultural law; the State's "Right to Farm Law". To this Newspaper's credit, they are correctly arguing that an unintended consequence of the increased scale of milk farming is an increased probability of an environmental "disaster" like this one.

"Right to Farm" laws are generally designed to protect farmers from the inevitable legal consequences that occur when urban uses encroach into agricultural areas. For instance, these laws usually exempt agriculture land owners from nuisance lawsuits (i.e., foul odors).

However, the "Right to Farm" statute is moot because a 3 million gallon manure spill into a navigable waterway clearly constitutes a violation of the Federal Clean Water Act and (presumably) State clean water standards. This is a public health issue and clean water laws take precedence over "Right to Farm" laws.

In regards to the increased presence of "mega-dairies," keep in mind that local agencies are approving the applications to build these facilities. This point cannot be underscored enough. Too often, many opponents of Locally Undesirable Land Uses (e.g. landfills, power plants, Wal-Mart Supercenters, etc.), fail to appreciate that many local agencies with land use authority do want these types of land uses and have planned for them in their local land use plans.

Thus, it's important to recognize that the prevalence of "mega-dairies" is not merely an instance of "corporate greed" or whatever post-modern academic term is in vogue today, but rather a conscious decision by many parts of rural New York that feel that these types of dairies are important components of their local communities.