Environmental Health News

A feed of recent articles from environmentalhealthnews.org.

17 November 2017. Amazon gold rush continues to decimate Peru's rain forest

Despite government efforts, mining has expanded into protected areas

17 November 2017. With vertical farms, some food banks are growing up

A number of food banks have begun growing their own produce with high-tech vertical farms to fight food insecurity year-round.

17 November 2017. Sandoval County officials get earful on oil, gas drilling

Activists have raised concerns about the potential environmental effects, arguing that the proposed rules would pave the way for more drilling with few safeguards in what they call a pristine

17 November 2017. We have an opioid overdose crisis, but cigarettes still kill 15 times more people

Here's what we need to do to save more lives.

17 November 2017. Could a pill one day reverse some of the damage lead inflicts on the brain?

Small molecule repairs some synapse function in lead-exposed rats, study shows

17 November 2017. Bringing the “farm” back to hog farming

Over the past four decades, the total U.S. inventory of hogs has remained consistent while the number of farms plummeted by 87 percent.

In 1977 there were more than a half million hog farm operations. There are now 63,236, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture Census. Almost half the total hogs in the country are raised on farms with more than 5,000 head and under contract to a larger entity, like Smithfield Foods or Cargill.

Accounting for just a sliver of hogs produced are the 70 percent of U.S. hog farms that have less than 100 hogs. The federal government doesn't tally how many farmers are raising hogs on pasture. The number is definitely low.

But data does exist on consumers seeking pasture-raised or organic pork. And it's moving in favor of folks like Moore.

Free-range (or vegetarian-fed) meat is now a $40 million business, based on nationwide shopper data analyzed by the Food Marketing Institute and North American Meat Institute. That is paltry compared to the $32 billion market for conventional meat. But the free-range business, in dollars, has grown 87 percent over the past decade, while conventional meat sales are down 4 percent.

US organic food purchases continue to break records, topping $43 billion, according to the latest report from the Organic Trade Association. Organic meat, with a dollar total of $474 million, grew 13 percent in dollars and 9 percent in volume over the past decade.

"Small, midsize farms are finding powerful friends—consumers," says Chris Petersen, an Iowa farmer who raises a couple hundred black Berkshire hogs a year and advocates nationally for small farmers.

Just a few hours drive from Moore are the huge industrial hog farms where thousands of animals are kept in metal cages. The top two hog producing counties in the U.S. are in North Carolina—Duplin and Sampson, with more three million hogs produced each year between them.

Moore's farm is worlds apart. There are bees, some cows, and produce scattered on the ground for grazing animals. Moore and a handful of workers—including his children and occasionally some of their friends—tend to the land and livestock.

There's one other big difference: Moore's farm doesn't smell like manure. The hogs aren't confined so neither is the waste, which fertilizes the ground rather than running off into nearby waterways.

He keeps about 130 hogs, so there's much less manure than the large outfits. He keeps a large black male boar with four sows, one of which is pregnant when I visit (she would give birth a few days later).

Ninja Cow Farm sells about 90 percent of its pork via a store on the property—"a big lemonade stand," as Moore calls it. The business isn't going to replace the industrial model that supplies cheap pork to the U.S., China and places in between.

"How can small farms compete with the big boys? It's simple. We can't," says Chuck Talbott, a small-scale, high-end hog farmer in Fraziers Bottom, West Virginia.

"We produce a different product."

For Robert Elliot, a U.S. Marine veteran who served for five years around the world, outdoor hog raising was a life-saver.

"When I came home in 2011, I had a hard time transitioning back to civilian life," Elliot says. Then he bought two pigs for his farm in Louisburg, North Carolina, dubbed Cypress Hall Farms. "I named them Pork Chop and Bacon," he says. "I'd watch them for hours, rooting around to eat … they're so smart."

Pork Chop and Bacon lived up to their gastronomic names but the meat was tough. Elliot learned from the experience and broadened to about 60 hogs on his 40 acres. He sold his pasture-raised pigs to local customers.

Talk to anyone long enough about outdoor versus indoor hogs and the phrase "economies of scale" will come up. And folks like Elliot are often on the wrong side of this equation: Cypress Hall, squeezed by the cost of hog raising and the higher prices Elliot was forced to charge compared to store brands, cut most of its production earlier this year.

Elliot is now transitioning to helping fellow veterans get into farming via The Veteran's Farm in nearby Fayetteville. But in his goodbye letter from Cypress Hall Farms, Elliot bemoaned the tilted economics of scale:

"We no longer keep our money in our communities," he wrote.

There are some clear advantages in raising hogs outside—it's a healthier place for workers, has lower start-up and operating costs, and, for what it's worth, the hogs get to run a round a bit and don't look like they're in a jail cell.

But you still have to make money.

Small farms can become viable by organizing—in ways like pooling resources, and working directly with restaurants that want pasture raised meat, says Silvana Pietrosemoli-Castagni, a research associate at North Carolina State University's Animal Science Department. She points to examples in her own state such as North Carolina's Natural Pork organization and NC Choices.

Jennifer Curtis, co-CEO of Firsthand Foods in North Carolina, connects pasture hog farmers with places to sell their meat. Most pasture farmers selling fresh pork—things like loins, sausage and smoked bacon—need to charge twice as much as the factory farms to recoup costs.

Talbott sells a half carcass for about $3.50 a pound. "Commodity prices are about a dollar," he says.

Talbott, Moore and others have to deal with weather, critters, diseases. Hogs will tear up the ground if not rotated properly.

But part of the economic imbalance is policy-driven, says Adam Mason of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement.

"Over this time of corporate consolidation, ... you saw more and more of the policies that supported family farmers or sustainable livestock operations gutted," Mason says.

Some of this comes in the form of government subsidies. The USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program, for example, gave 11 percent of its funds to confined animal feeding operations in 2016. The fund, totaling $1 billion last year, is designed to help crop and animal farmers practice conservation. Sustainable and organic farming proponents say that it makes no sense to send money to large confined livestock operations.

The $113 million sent to large confinement operations last year went to help the industrial livestock farms manage pollution, wastewater, manure and dead animals.

Another indirect subsidy is government support for corn and soybeans, both of which make up the diet of confinement hogs.

Livestock eats about 50 percent of U.S.-produced corn and soy. Without government subsidies, production costs would rise roughly 7 to 10 percent for industrial livestock farms. Small-farm advocates say that alone could help level the playing field a bit.

Some industrial farms are also reliant on growth-promoting antibiotics, largely shunned by pasture farms. The drugs can bolster profits by 9 percent. But they lead to real and serious worries about the spread of antibiotic resistant diseases in humans.

Steve Deibele, who runs Golden Bear Farm, in Kiel, Wisconsin, says another big cost discrepancy is labor. "Conventional" hog farms—confinement operations—average about $11.42 in labor per finished hog, according to Iowa State University. Pasture and other niche hog producer costs can be up to three times that amount.

But there are advantages.

It's a raw, drizzly, mid-40s day when I talk to Deibele. He's got 180 hogs who aren't happy with the weather. "They don't like this," he says. "I put them in the barn, they have a lot of room to run around."

Like Moore, Deibele supplements pasture with produce and veggie scraps—apples, pumpkins, clover, alfalfa. "We're showing hogs are very efficient grazers," he says.

Duffield, at the Rodale Institute, says soil health is his number one concern. He says you can have that, your great pork, and eat it too. "Alfalfa, clover, corn, millet, small grain, beets, turnips, radishes … we minimize rooting by giving a variety of forages and encourage them to graze instead of root."

Foraging outside can save farmers on feed, which can total 70 to 80 percent of production costs, regardless of whether you're raising hogs outside or in confinement, Castagni says.

Raising hogs outside is not an automatic environmental win. They root around and ruin stuff. They can cause significant erosion if not managed well. And their waste can still be a major problem if farmers aren't attentive.

However, grazing hogs can get 10 to 20 percent of their nutritional needs from feeding on pasture, Castagni says. For sows in gestation, or hog mothers-to-be, when farmers are monitoring their weight and food intake, grazing can provide a whopping 50 to 60 percent of their nutrition.

"It's like they're on a diet and eating a lot of salad," Castagni says.

Back at the edge of suburbia in North Carolina, Moore's hogs are munching actual salad. Moore and I stop and chat next to overflowing bins of green peppers. His farm now goes through about 7 million pounds of would-be-waste from the Raleigh Farmer's Market a year, he says.

It's turned part of his farm into "sort of a recycling center," he says. Near the overflowing bins of green peppers, potatoes and various citrus fruits, is a cardboard box compacter and stacks of wooden pallets to be reused.

"Once my wife tried one of the first couple hogs we fed this way, she told me this is how we're raising pigs. She said, 'I didn't ask, I'm telling you," he says, throwing the Gator into gear.

"It's the taste."

Editor's note: This story is part of Peak Pig: The fight for the soul of rural America , EHN's investigation of what it means to be rural in an age of mega-farms.

Related: Treatment, taste and trends

RALEIGH, N.C.—Dan Moore's farm marks an abrupt exit from the fringes of suburbia: cookie cooker homes give way as a rolling road weaves you through a dense canopy of deciduous trees.

It would be easy to miss the driveway but for a small sign of a cartoon cow with a sword, the logo for the family farm dubbed, of course, Ninja Cow.

Moore's family has deep roots in North Carolina. His relatives have farmed here for more than a century.

"I tried to leave like most farm kids but got pulled back," Moore tells me on a mid-80s day in April, right before his busy season. The 84-acre Ninja Cow Farm (named after a difficult and elusive cow from years past) is just 20 minutes south of downtown Raleigh. Approaching the farm, you see the hallmarks of encroaching sprawl—manicured lawns, fastidious landscaping, subdivisions. Moore's plot of Earth is wild, well protected, covered by trees—with the hallmarks of people and animals at work.

The farm is half pasture, half wooded. Moore's hogs roam and root among the trees. They squeal, nudge one another, burrow in mud and eat from piles of would-be-wasted Raleigh Farmer's Market produce.

Moore, sporting a flat-brimmed straw farmers hat, dark shades, khaki shorts, sandals and an orange shirt with the Ninja Cow logo, leads me to a 4x4 Gator vehicle for a tour.

His slight drawl, pork business ties and family roots make him pure North Carolina. But his unorthodox, stench-free farm of free-range pigs and cows is an anomalous outlier in a state—and country—where most hogs are raised in buildings, confined by metal cages and subject neighbors to overwhelming smells and polluted waterways.

Economists and researchers say the market is stacked against farmers like Moore. Outdoor hog production has a place, but it's "clearly a niche," says John McGlone of Texas Tech University, who has been researching different techniques of hog raising for years.

His answer on the future is not nuanced: "It's indoors." The reasons are simple: More control, more consistency, lower costs.

However, meat eaters are increasingly looking for local, humane, environmentally friendly pork. Ninja Cow isn't technically a "pasture farm" since the hogs are feeding on produce from the farmer's market and roaming the woods. But it's unquestionably a farm: And that lies at the heart of a move toward raising hogs outside—both from the farmer's and consumer's point of view.

Advocates of outdoor hog raising say the industry model is simply hiding costs in excess pollution, government subsidies and lax regulation.

"Commodity pork is not the true cost of food," says Ross Duffield, farm manager with the Rodale Institute, a Pennsylvania-based research institute advocating for organic farming. "We need to get back in touch with farmers, and farmers need to let consumers know hog pork is raised."

17 November 2017. Treatment, taste and trends

Far from Rosmann, in East Lansing, Michigan, I'm given instructions I've never heard while reporting in the field.

"There are the clean underwear, socks … I'll see you on the other side."

More than 600 miles away from Rosmann's hogs, I'm at Michigan State University's Swine Teaching & Research Center, a long, continuous building a few miles south of the main campus.

After brief introductions, Kevin Turner, the farm manager, tells me to hit the showers. The Center is a somewhat mini-version of the large industrial hog confinement farms, says MSU researcher, professor and swine expert, Dale Rozeboom.

"I got a little chest cold today," Rozeboom says. "I won't be going in."

The shower and Rozeboom's excusal are to protect the hogs from catching something from sick humans. The Center houses roughly 240 hogs (when I visit there are 223) and a handful of male boars for breeding. Over the course of a year, 2,000 hogs will go through the Center.

Controlling diseases is a huge challenge for large-scale hog farmers, where thousands of hogs are tightly packed together in buildings.

Clean clothes and a shower are just one measure—rooms are frequently disinfected, and hogs are given vaccines. If new animals are brought in they may be quarantined for a while from the main herd. Pathogen-carrying rodents and insects are strictly controlled.

In addition to the total change of clothes, I had to confirm that I hadn't been at any other hog farms in the past few days. This isn't just MSU—this is how large hog farms operate.

Viruses can sweep through barns, decimating populations. In 2014 porcine epidemic diarrhea virus tore through U.S. hog farms, killing nearly 10 percent of the country's hogs, according to the National Pork Producer Council.

It destroyed industry bottom lines and hurt consumers, as pork prices jumped up as much as 10 percent during the worst of the disease.

And so I'm given a complete change of clothes, down to the undergarments. Every worker needs to shower before entering and exiting the building. In my fresh jumpsuit and (hopefully) new undies, we start the tour and immediately I'm hit with the smell I've been hearing so much about.

First are the boars: they have their own room because they're big and aggressive. I gag. The smell of manure and ammonia. The sound of 800-pound boars passing gas and relieving themselves. They squeal and ram into the metal bars.

The boars, and the sows I see later, are mostly caged in stalls that sharply limit mobility. Their urine and excrement litters the floor and falls through metal slats to be collected underneath.

Young hogs are grouped by age and housed in pens. They sprint around them, playing with one another—biting, tripping, snorting, peeing, pooping.

Turner loves hogs. "They're intelligent and they're really social … they establish a whole social hierarchy."

But to me, to see the hogs in cages for the first time, rattling at the bars, unable to move, the scene is jarring.

Turner is the one who has been around hogs his entire life though, not me. I am interested to hear his thoughts on welfare concerns in confinement operations.

He says the hogs are treated well here at the Center. "The system has advantages," he says. "The stalls allow us to treat each hog individually."

This means monitoring for any diseases or injury, and giving just the right amount of food.

I go back to the smile I imagined on the sow in Rosmann's muddy sty. We can't crawl inside a hog's head. But a large—and consistently growing—body of research suggests that indoor, confinement hog raising also has major health disadvantages for the pigs.

One of the more infamous practices of industrial farms—keeping sows in crates in which they can barely move after they give birth—leads to the type of changes in sow adrenal glands that are consistent with chronic stress. Researchers from the Scottish Agricultural College reported that the stress hormone cortisol shot up in confined sows compared to those kept in large pens filled with straw.

Australian researchers reported that sows had higher incidence of lameness and stress when kept in stalls. The Universities Federation for Animal Welfare found crated sows had longer births, and increased restlessness.

Last year researchers from Australia and The Ohio State University found that the more floor space sows were given after insemination by a boar, the less aggressive and stressed out they were.

An experiment in China last year found that long-term confinement can "significantly increase the frequency of vacuum-chewing" (chewing when nothing is present) and fear of objects in sows, which built on previous research that found sows displayed abnormal chewing and laid around more when confined before they gave birth.

Measuring stress may be an imperfect science, but for those concerned about an animal's welfare, it's a significant marker.

"Exposing an animal to stress compromises welfare. Thus, welfare cannot be achieved under stress. Obviously, the best way to deal with stress is to avoid it," wrote scientists in a 2013 review of measuring stress and animal welfare.

"Why do people want their pork from hogs raised outside? Well, the quality of pork is superior, but it's just much better animal welfare," Duffield says.

Andrew Gunther, executive director of Animal Welfare Approved, a third party certifier of meat and dairy products, estimates that over the past few years certification requests have gone from a couple of farms a week to around seven to 10 now. Only outdoor farms are eligible, though not all pasture hog farms get the certification.

"We've seen a significant rise in interest," he says.

Despite this public interest in animal welfare, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has delayed a rule that would require more outdoor access and space for livestock if farmers wanted an organic certification for their meat. The pork industry has resisted but Laura Batcha, CEO of Organic Trade Association, says Agricultural Secretary Sonny Perdue needs to take a look at the public comments clamoring for better treatment of animals.

"The Secretary only needs to follow the Federal Register in order to make a decision that represents the vast, vast majority of interest on the subject rather than a short handful of special interests on the subject," Batcha said in May at the Association's conference. The Association is now suing the USDA over the delayed rule.

Just down the road from MSU's Swine Research Center, a day after my visit, I check out the MSU Student Organic farm, where about a dozen hogs run around in late March.

In many ways the hog raising here—done on a much, much smaller scale—is the counterpoint to the Production Facility up the road. Rozeboom says one isn't better than the other, rather, both are teaching tools for students interested in hogs. The hogs, huddled in what looks like a metal culvert inside a covered stretch of mud, rush out at the site of Rozeboom—and the smell of pastries.

He's feeding the hogs cakes, breads, bananas and other treats from a local food bank that was about to landfill the food. The hogs will not be totally organic in eating this, but it's a way to get students thinking about "systems," Rozeboom says, and incorporating ideas like reducing local food waste in sustainable farming.

When I ask the soft-spoken Rozeboom whether industrial farms are "hiding true costs," of hog farming, he raises his voice. "Why do you say that?" he asks, sounding upset.

I mention welfare concerns as well as environmental research pointing to water and air pollution. "Any system can have faults," he says. "I know people with 6,000 hogs that treat them really well."

Pasture-raised, and organic, pork remains a higher end market. But it's a market nonetheless, says Jennifer Curtis, co-CEO of Firsthand Foods in North Carolina, which connects pasture hog farmers with places to sell their meat.

In North Carolina alone the total value sold in the "niche meat" market increased 56 percent from 2013 to 2016, according to a farmer survey conducted by N.C. State University's Center for Environmental Farming Systems.

When I talk to Chuck Talbott, a small-scale high-end hog producer in Fraziers Bottom, West Virginia, he had just gotten back from Louisville, Ky., where he had sold 32 hogs to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby.

"They were excited about the hams and mixing them up and serving with different bourbons, giving them out to the millionaires," Talbott says, adding that people were paying $7,000 just to be in the pit.

Another selling point? Pasture raised hogs are healthier for the people eating them. "What goes in the pig ends up in the meat," says Steve Deibele, who runs Golden Bear Farm, in Kiel, Wisconsin. He points to the diet of commercial raised hogs, which is dominated by corn and soy and is "way weak in omega-3 fatty acid content."

Pasture raised hogs, due to the greens (and any supplemented veggies they're eating), have been shown to have higher omega-3s in their meat.

Corn and soy are very high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, which are ubiquitous in most Western diets these days. Humans need a balance of omega-3s and omega-6s—too much omega-6, which is easy to do these days, means heightened inflammation.

"We need this (omega) balance for things like our immune systems, cancer prevention," Deibele says. "And we're striving for this with our sourcing of grains and putting hogs on pasture."

Pasture raised pork also packs more vitamin E and iron than industrial pork, according to a 2012 analysis .

With many pasture hogs coming from diverse genetic lines, the health benefits extend to our planet's biodiversity.

In many ways pasture hog farmers are the seed savers of the pig world. Most industrial pork comes from the Yorkshire breed or an industrial hybrid.

"Every time you lose a breed, you lose a bit of diversity of the species," says Jeanette Baranger of the Livestock Conservancy. "We're really trying to safeguard that diversity and maintain healthy populations of these breeds."

Three breeds—Choctaw, Mulefoot, Ossabaw Island—are currently listed as "critical" on the Conservancy's endangered list, and four—Gloucestershire Old Spots, Guinea Hog, Large Black, Red Wattle—are listed as "threatened."

There are a couple reasons this diversity is so vital, Baranger says. "Breeds may have qualities that we don't know are important right now but we may need," she says. "Such as resistance to certain diseases, mothering skills, as a lot of commercial breeds aren't the best mothers anymore, or known to have very nice temperaments."

"A lot of heritage hogs are laid back, easygoing, while enormous commercial pigs are not known to have sweet dispositions," she says.

Baranger says they've had some successes in working with pasture hog farmers. A South Carolina farmer named Grá Moore switched from Berkshires to the Carolina Guinea Hog, a "fatty, fun, little pig," Baranger says, that was down to 50 or so animals left a decade ago. As the market developed for the hogs, which are a "perfect suckling pig," Baranger says, chefs in Charleston, South Carolina, and Atlanta started asking about them.

Now the population has climbed back to about 1,000, Baranger says.

"Heritage and pasture raised won't take over the market, but it's important to have those options open," she says. "Commercial agriculture only uses a few breeds, and we're going to have to use genetic resources from these heritage breeds."

Editor's note: This story is part of Peak Pig: The fight for the soul of rural America, EHN's investigation of what it means to be rural in an age of mega-farms.

Related: Bringing the "farm" back to hog farming

HARLAN, Iowa—Over a lunch of burgers and pork tacos, Ron Rosmann talks about everything from bluegrass music to one of his favorite authors, Mari Sandoz.

But when the topic turns to hobbies, his son interjects: "Your only hobby was farming."

Rosmann, smiles, wipes his mouth. "That's true."

His 700-acre farm is much more than hobby—growing organic oats, beans, turnips, hay, and raising about 90 cows and hundreds of organic hogs annually. Rosmann has dedicated his life to environmentally friendly, family farming.

Back at the farm he gives me the tour with barn kittens following us around.

He has a large hoop structure to contain the pigs, a type that's gaining popularity among outdoor hog raisers. The kittens scare some young piglets as we talk organic feed and watch a sow root around a bit, flop her body down, kick around a couple times and seemingly smile once properly muddy.

Of course I can't confirm the smile. But Rosmann's hogs aren't confined in the metal cages favored by industry, which have been linked to stress in the animals. And increasingly consumers are looking for meat that was raised without such shackles.

Last year a U.S. survey found that 77 percent of consumers are concerned about the welfare of animals they eat. In a national survey in 2014, 69 percent of Americans said animal welfare was a priority when grocery shopping. In another survey the same year by the American Humane Association, 93 percent of almost 6,000 people surveyed said it was "very important" to buy humanely raised products.

Humane treatment of animals ranked more important for respondents than organic, and antibiotic free. This spring, in a Food Demand survey conducted regularly by Oklahoma State University, animal welfare clocked the largest increase in consumer awareness among all factors.

Ross Duffield, farm manager with the Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute, a nonprofit research group advocating for organic farming practices, says the 2015 purchase of Applegate Farms by corporate giant Hormel Foods is a sign that corporate agriculture "sees the writing on the wall" and that niche meat may soon not be so niche. Applegate makes natural and organic meats, whereas Hormel was perhaps better know for Spam and had almost no organic presence before the purchase.

Also in 2010 poultry giant Perdue purchased Niman Ranch, which operates one of the largest hog pasture operations in the country by using hogs from hundreds of small pasture hog farmers.

"The taste is much better," Rosmann says of hogs raised outside of confinement facilities. "But it also seems a better environment for the hogs."

17 November 2017. We're heading for a male fertility crisis and we're not prepared

We wrote about this last summer when two key papers were published almost simultaneously. Together they raised big questions about the future of human fertility.

One, led by Hagai Levine and Shanna Swan, reported that men's sperm counts had declined by more than 50 percent from 1973 to 2013, with no sign that the decline is slowing.

In this article, New Scientist provides a good description of their work. The other, with lead and senior authors Tera Horan and Patricia Hunt, respectively, showed that fetal exposures over three generations of mice to an endocrine disrupting chemical known to suppress sperm count compounded the effects from one generation to the next.

In an interview about these two papers Prof. Fred vom Saal, an expert on endocrine disruptors (and not a participant in either), voiced a deep concern that humans may be in a "fertility death spiral."

17 November 2017. Crews cleaning up Keystone Pipeline leak in Marshall County

From the "Who could've foreseen this?" file: Crews are working to clean up a pipeline leak that has spilled at least 210,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota.

17 November 2017. China faces waste hangover after Singles' Day buying binge

China's Singles' Day online discount sales bonanza on Saturday saw bargain-hungry buyers spend over $38 billion, flooding the postal and courier businesses with around 331 million packages - and leaving an estimated 160,000 tonnes of packaging waste.

17 November 2017. Indonesia evacuates villagers after shootings near Freeport copper mine

Indonesia on Friday began evacuating villages that authorities said had been occupied by armed separatists after a string of shootings near the giant Grasberg copper mine operated by Freeport McMoRan Inc in the eastern province of Papua.

17 November 2017. Study: Media coverage of drought spurred California water conservation

During California’s five-year drought, residents started saving water long before the water agencies required it. That’s because they were motivated by heavy media coverage, says Stanford University’s Newsha Ajami.

17 November 2017. Appeals court takes up youth climate change lawsuit against Trump

A federal court will hear arguments on whether a novel global warming lawsuit that would pit the U.S. government against children can move to trial.

17 November 2017. Reuters investigation finds elevated lead levels in several Vermont communities

A lengthy investigation by Reuters News identified thousands of U.S. communities with lead levels more than twice those found in Flint, Michigan.

17 November 2017. Fire at Lincoln Mill fuels concerns about asbestos, other toxics

Firefighters who fought a massive blaze Wednesday at the former Lincoln paper mill await a specialist’s review to determine the hazards posed by the site’s

17 November 2017. Riverbanks are newest PCB concern for Hudson

It is becoming all too clear that dredging was just the start of removing PCBs.

17 November 2017. Oregon commercial Dungeness crab season delayed for 3rd year in a row

Oregon's commercial crabbing season has been delayed for the third year in a row because of toxins, a move that could upset holiday meal plans.

17 November 2017. In landmark ruling, court orders paint companies to pay to clean lead paint out of California homes.

A California appeals court orders paint companies to pay for lead paint abatement in millions of homes.

17 November 2017. Fracking study: Answers soon on sick foals of Tioga Downs owner

Cornell study on horses at Tioga Downs owner's farm focuses on fracking risks.

17 November 2017. Children sitting in back of cars ‘exposed to dangerous levels of pollution’, Unicef warns

Unicef urged the Government to publish guidance highlighting that the air inside cars may be more toxic than outside on the pavement.

17 November 2017. Denmark to scrap tax on PVC and phthalates

The tax, which covers tape, binders, gloves, aprons, rainwear and protective suits, entered into force in June 2000 and will end on 1 January 2019.

17 November 2017. Western men's free-falling sperm count is a 'Titanic moment for the human species'

In the past 40 years, Western men's sperm count has declined by half. What can be done to counter the trend?

17 November 2017. Nestle argues for crucial zoning permit in court hearing

Protestors say Michigan township has right to govern itself.

17 November 2017. This gene-editing tech might be too dangerous to unleash

With gene drives, scientists are trying to supercharge evolution to eradicate malaria and save endangered species from extinction. But is this DARPA-funded tech safe enough to test in the wild? One of its creators isn't so sure.

17 November 2017. Cycling downhill: Has Copenhagen hit peak bike?

The share of trips taken by bike in Denmark’s capital has fallen. With ever more cars on the road and a new metro line about to open, can Copenhagen reach its target to have half of all journeys made by bike?

17 November 2017. 'Maybe the smog can bring us together': Toxic air chokes Pakistan and India

With Lahore suffering from air pollution almost equal to that enveloping Delhi, joint action to tackle the problem is urgently needed, say environmentalists

17 November 2017. Nurseries ban glitter in pre-Christmas drive for cleaner seas

Tops Day Nurseries group cracks down amid fears children’s favourite could be as harmful to environment as microbeads

17 November 2017. Tesla’s latest creation: An electric big rig that can travel 500 miles on a single charge

The big rig is Tesla's latest attempt to change the transportation industry.

16 November 2017. Hog waste-to-gas: Renewable energy or more hot air?

By curbing both carbon dioxide and methane, biogas plays a dual role in the steep greenhouse gas reductions that scientists believe are necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change.

To ratchet down carbon dioxide pollution, analysts say society must use less energy overall, and transition the entire economy to rely on clean electricity rather than burning coal, oil and natural gas.

Most researchers agree wind, solar and other non-combustion sources could get the country to almost 100 percent clean energy. But with today's technology, "nobody knows how we're going to get the last 5 or 10 percent," says Rob Sargent with Environment America.

That's because processes that require extremely high heat – like the production of plastics needed for medical devices – still rely on combustion. Jet planes and long-haul trucks still demand a liquid fuel source to travel great distances.

Thus, though he's generally circumspect on biogas, Sargent acknowledges, "there are some applications where it makes sense in the transition to straight-up renewables and storage."

Others say biogas could prove vital over the long term in decarbonizing society's hard-to-electrify elements – from heavy-duty vehicles to the gas stoves consumers may be loath to give up.

"The value of biogas … is really is an alternative for direct gas use for non- buildings, non-electric generation areas," says Amanda Levin of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who recently authored a strategy for cutting U.S. greenhouse gases 80 percent by 2050.

Most analysts believe biogas will play a small part in displacing fossil fuels. Levin's study, for example, found it would make up just 4 percent of all gas use by mid-century.

But biogas would play a vital role in curbing methane. Believed to be 36 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, methane is far more prevalent in the atmosphere than previously thought, according to groundbreaking research published last year.

In 2015 , the most recent year analyzed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, methane accounted for 10 percent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions. Natural gas drilling is a significant source of methane, but the agency's data show agriculture – through a combination of cattle digestion and livestock manure – is still the single largest source of the pollutant .

Thus, even if biogas plays a minute role in reducing carbon dioxide pollution, most researchers say there's ample benefit in displacing methane leaks from natural gas, and averting methane pollution wherever possible. Case in point: if the Durham plant could spur the creation of 289 more digesters the size of the Yadkin County one, the methane captured would cut as much greenhouse gas pollution as removing more than 175,000 cars from the road.

"Capturing the energy is better than not capturing the energy," Sargent says.

Despite the value of biogas in curbing global warming pollution, many advocates believe new infrastructure shouldn't be built to burn it – especially if used to create heat and electricity, two purposes that could be served by non-combustion renewable sources.

Fueling existing combined heat and power plants with biogas rather than natural gas – as the University of California system is considering – makes sense, they say. But a new power plant that would divert resources away from other clean energy investments does not.

"Duke is culturally resistant to making the kind of investments that will fundamentally change their energy system to something that is either all-electric, or gets away from steam as a general heating tool," Steelman says. "You're baking this added capacity into your long-term resource plan in lieu of more aggressive investments in efficiency and renewables."

Finally, there's concern that the plant could be built on a promise of biogas that never materializes – a particular worry since the proposal reflects a nationwide push by utilities to build combined heat and power plants on college campuses.

Undoubtedly, the U.S. biogas market needs a kickstart. According to the American Biogas Council , of all the wastewater treatment plants, landfills, and livestock operations around the country that could economically capture methane, only about 14 percent do so at the moment.

By sheer number of facilities, the agricultural sector represents the country's greatest room for growth – with 8,700 swine and hog farms large enough to economically produce biogas, but just 265 on-farm digesters operating today.

Dairy farms make up the bulk of these, most in the Midwest, where farmers have sought to allay neighbor complaints about the smell of manure spread on fields. Dry cow manure is easily collected from already-confined animals and funneled to an above-ground tank, and its energy output is high.

Hog waste, however, has a high liquid content and produces less gas than dry cow manure. It's typically stored in open-air pits and costlier to move to a separate tank. And though the anaerobic digestion process can take place in a covered pit, or "lagoon," it relies on warm temperatures.

Those factors help explain why Iowa, which raises more hogs than any other state, has only two swine-waste-to-energy projects – and why Minnesota, which ranks third behind North Carolina in hog production, has none. And they point to how North Carolina – with its warm climate and hefty hog population – has become a pioneer in swine biogas, with 10 digesters now in operation and more soon to come online.

Still, with the third most biogas resources in the country, North Carolina lags far behind its potential – and its progress toward swine gas has come in fits and starts.

Some of the reasons are unique to the state: hurricanes and the spread of disease wiped out hog populations, reducing waste and the fuel they could produce. Also, out-of-state developers with expertise in energy but not hogs signed deals that fell through.

"They look at a map and they see all the swine farms and they see dollar signs," says Angie Maier with the North Carolina Pork Council. "But as with anything, the devil's in the details. It's very difficult to pull one of these projects off."

But other hurdles are common for biogas projects across the U.S. Like all emerging renewable energy sources, swine gas is more expensive than traditional fuels – which enjoy direct subsidies and no obligation to pay for the impacts of their pollution. In North Carolina, Duke Energy estimates biogas is roughly three times the cost of natural gas.

"Biogas systems are no different from any other renewable energy system in that they have to be conceived in a way that makes money," said Patrick Serfass, head of the American Biogas Council. "That's a challenge right now for the industry."

Policies designed to help level the economic playing field for biogas have been erratic over the last decade.

After Republicans swept the North Carolina legislature in 2010, they launched regular campaigns to repeal the state's 2007 clean energy mandate – which included a small but crucial swine-waste-to-energy requirement. A bipartisan majority always thwarted these attempts, but the signal to would-be biogas entrepreneurs was chilling.

"The industry needs the regulatory environment to be consistent," says Brian Barlia of Revolution Energy Solutions (RES), the project manager for one of the state's largest biogas projects to date, in Duplin County.

Removing a pillar that allowed an RES development in Magnolia, North Carolina, to turn a profit, in 2015 lawmakers also ended the state's 35 percent tax credit for renewable energy investment – one of the most generous in the nation.

Similarly, the U.S. Congress let a 30 percent investment tax credit for biogas projects expire in 2016. After that, Barlia says, "your two main economic drivers have been put to pasture." Without them, he says the Magnolia project – which came online in 2013 – would not have penciled out.

Selling electricity to regulated utilities also poses challenges. Though a 1978 federal law requires utilities to purchase power from small renewable energy developers, negotiating contracts and connections to the electric grid is no easy task for most farmers.

"We don't have a lawyer on staff," says Deborah Ballance, who, with her husband, runs Legacy Farms in North Carolina's Wayne County, where a digester system will be up and running in six months. "We had to go out and find someone who was knowledgeable about this. It's not every day you deal with a power company."

Ballance is one of the few who overcame other obstacles facing farmers considering building and running a digester themselves: lack of capital to invest in a system that can run $1 million or more, and the knowledge or inclination to apply for government grants that could assist them.

Even hosting an outside energy developer like RES is a significant decision for a farmer. "No matter how good the deal may look," says Gus Simmons, the state's leading biogas engineer, "there's no way that doing any of these projects doesn't change the farmer's world."

But biogas proponents in North Carolina see signs of hope. Some of the Legislature's most rabid clean energy opponents have retired, while others are softening their views.

Duplin County's Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a "semi-retired" hog and turkey farmer, has co-sponsored bills to repeal or freeze the renewable energy law every legislative session since he joined the North Carolina House in 2010.

Now he says, "repeal is a bygone proposition at this point. We've invested too much time, energy, and human capital. People have complied with the law and they shouldn't have the rug pulled out from under them."

A sweeping, bipartisan clean energy law adopted this summer also may indicate a new era of magnanimity toward renewable fuels – and it includes a section prodding the utility to perform "expedited review" of swine waste-to-energy projects seeking interconnection.

Quicker reviews and connections, says Duke Energy's Travis Payne, "that's going to be a priority going forward."

Growing numbers of companies and campuses are joining Duke University in pledging 100 percent clean energy and "carbon neutrality," sustaining a voluntary market in which biogas producers can sell credits for curbing methane emissions. Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork-producer, has even committed to reducing its climate footprint by 25 percent .

According to the Pork Council, interested growers are meeting regularly with energy developers, the utilities, and university researchers to understand their options. Among farmers, there's more interest than ever before.

"Five, six years ago, if I was talking to groups of farmers [about biogas], I didn't have their full attention," Maier says. "Now, I see their heads nodding."

One of the greatest sources of optimism for biogas proponents is the trend toward "renewable natural gas": removing impurities from methane and injecting molecules directly into existing natural gas pipeline infrastructure, as opposed to generating electricity onsite.

Sometimes called "directed biogas," the approach is already being used with swine waste-to-energy projects in Indiana, Missouri and Oklahoma. It means farmers or biogas developers don't have to negotiate with the electric utility to connect to the grid. What's more, burning renewable natural gas in a high-efficiency power plant produces more energy than less efficient on-farm generators could.

That's part of why Duke Energy plans major renewable natural gas purchases from two projects within the next year. Both in Duplin County, one will become the largest anaerobic digester in the nation – drawing on poultry and food waste as well as hog manure. The other, designed by the same engineer who helmed the Yadkin County project for Duke University and Google, comes online this month.

"We're trying a lot of technologies to meet our swine goals," says Duke Energy's Payne. "But honestly we're putting a lot of eggs in the directed biogas bucket."

There is some debate over what standards biogas must meet before it can be injected into pipelines and renewable natural gas still carries some added costs – cleaning the gas isn't cheap, nor is the infrastructure needed to connect farms to existing pipelines. In 2013, however, a Duke University study found pipeline injection of biogas could lower the cost of swine biogas to as little as 5 cents a kilowatt hour.

Renewable natural gas also opens the door for additional incentives – particularly critical in the wake of expired tax incentives for swine waste to energy. If the biogas is ultimately converted to transportation fuel, it can qualify for credits under the nation's Renewable Fuel Standard.

"That credit has a value, and it's a game changer. You can sell your [unit of gas] for $43 as opposed to three [dollars]," says Serfass of the American Biogas Council. Thus, "most people are looking at renewable natural gas these days just because of the enormous revenue upside."

Yet Duke University believes biogas will never really take off in the state – or perhaps the country – without an additional catalyst: Such as a wealthy school willing to pay top dollar for nearly as much biogas as state law already requires.

Tanja Vujic, who works in the office of the executive vice president at Duke University, and helped get the Yadkin County project off the ground, emphasizes their procurement would be on top of the existing swine gas requirement.

"There's not been a demand signal like this before, and there's not been such a motivated buyer before," she says. "Those two things together could really accelerate things."

A one-time staff member of the Environmental Defense Fund, Vujic believes the university can play a vital role in not just jumpstarting the state's market for waste-to-energy, but in paving the way for new manure management practices that take less toll on the surrounding waterways and communities. But, she says, "it's not all going to happen in one fell swoop."

As of this publishing, the university has made no new proposals public on the plant, or its plans to procure biogas. But Vujic is confident the campus will make it happen. "That's what my job is," she says. (Indeed, in the months since the power plant controversy first blew up, her title has changed to "Director of Biogas Strategy.")

Vujic's goals go beyond the subcommittee's recommendation. Her aim is to procure enough biogas not just to fuel the new power plant, but to displace all of the university's existing natural gas use – an outcome that, if done in connection with ramping down energy use overall – might appease some of the plant's sharpest critics.

Vujic is also hopeful the university's procurement can create models that can be exported throughout rural America, as the agricultural industry stakes out its role in mitigating climate change.

But most of all, she says Duke University is trying to minimize its climate footprint and maximize its benefit to North Carolinians. When she and her colleagues survey all the options, "methane from hog farms always comes out at the top of our list."

Editor' s note: This story is part of Peak Pig: The fight for the soul of rural America , EHN' s investigation of what it means to be rural in an age of mega-farms. This story was done in partnership with NC Policy Watch .

Related: Using biogas to clear the air near hog farms

DURHAM, NC—On a school night in early spring, a rowdy collection of environmental activists, local residents, and Duke University faculty and students packed a public forum, railing against the school's plan to build a new $55-million gas plant on campus.

For nearly three hours, speaker after speaker denounced fossil fuels, decried fracking, and inveighed against the state's investor-owned utility. They begged the university to invest in a "sustainable future," one filled with wind and solar power, not natural gas.

But Tim Profeta, the chair of Duke's sustainability committee and the host of the meeting, had another idea. "We have an opportunity to become a demander of biogas, and not the fracked gas we've been hearing about all night," he said.

Since 2007, Profeta said, the university had been researching the capture of methane from hog manure to create electricity. The technology, called anaerobic digestion, could reduce pollution from the state's 10 billion gallons of swine waste – now stored primarily in open-air pits – and help meet a campus-wide goal of zero net greenhouse gas emissions.

Many in the crowd that night were skeptical. Was it really feasible?

A select group of faculty, staff and students thought it was. Two weeks after the forum , the panel made its recommendation to their university's top brass: only build the new plant if, within five years, Duke could purchase enough swine biogas to fuel it.

Campus leaders – who had been working toward a vote to approve the plant during a May board of trustees meeting – temporarily shelved their proposal.

The subcommittee's proposition was, in some ways, an elegant one. Long concerned about the pollution created by the state's 9.2 million hogs, the university helped pioneer a first-of-its-kind swine-waste-to-energy project in Yadkin County, North Carolina, in 2011.

By committing to make a major purchase of swine biogas, Duke believes it could spur the creation of nearly 300 similar-sized projects – more than doubling the number of anaerobic digesters on livestock farms nationwide, and creating useful lessons for a fledgling U.S. biogas industry.

The influx of projects would curb emissions of methane – the potent greenhouse gas many times more powerful than carbon – and cut odor and pathogens emanating from some of the state's 2,100 large-scale hog operations. It would create hundreds of short-term construction jobs and some long-term ones in rural areas of the state that sorely need them.

But critics see a messy side. They worry the benefits of methane capture are too limited, and could preclude more comprehensive cleanup of an industry that has anguished some neighbors and polluted waterways for decades. And though many climate analysts believe biogas can play a small but important role in displacing fossil fuels and reducing greenhouse gases, they say that doesn't justify the university's investment in expensive new gas infrastructure.

"Biogas is a perfectly laudable goal, and as a leading university in the country in a state that produces this much pork, it would be a very fine thing to incentivize and get going," says John Steelman of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who also happens to be a Duke graduate. "But don't link that to building a new gas plant."

For the moment, the university staff is trying to figure out how to make the swine gas recommendation a reality. Their success or failure could reverberate throughout the nation's biogas market and across other North Carolina campuses with commitments to reduce their climate footprint.

13 November 2017. Peak Pig: Read our full series on the fight for the soul of rural America

Cheap bacon and bigger barns turn Iowa inside out

People across Iowa—union organizers, retirees, farmers, truck stop cashiers, former teachers and a bunch of people that live at the end of the road for a reason—say massive hog farms have eroded the communal aspect of rural life and have pushed small-scale farmers out of business.

Pork, political sway and provoked communities

Many rural folks living near large scale hog operations feel they've been left behind. And in living rooms, community centers and diners throughout Iowa, opposition is growing and organizers are looking to bring local voices back to state politics.

"My number one concern is water"

As large hog barns spring up around his house, Jerry George sums up the major reason he and his wife, Sue, are in opposition: "It's water. My number one concern is water."

Neutering nuisance laws in North Carolina

Nationwide, the consolidation of the livestock industry and corporate political power has created a formidable proponent of anti-nuisance laws. As a result, neighbors of these industrialized farms who have taken on the hog industry are seeing their nuisance claims gutted, with few avenues of recourse.

Swine workers on front lines in fight against antibiotic resistance

A growing body of studies has shown that livestock and their human handlers can swap potentially harmful bacterial strains. Scientists now are scrambling to track where and how this transmission occurs in an effort to quell the human health threat.

Using biogas to clear the air near hog farms

Anaerobic digestion reduces pathogens, odor, and volume—and it offers a critical upside for managers of all types of organic byproducts – from animal manure to food waste to sewage. Harnessing methane gas – which would otherwise leak into the atmosphere – curbs a global warming pollutant many times more potent than carbon dioxide. But challenges remain.

Hog waste-to-gas: Renewable energy or more hot air?

Duke University is trying to figure out how to use biogas from North Carolina's thousands of hog farms to power campus. Their success or failure could reverberate throughout the nation's biogas market and across other state campuses with commitments to reduce their climate footprint.

Bringing the farm back to hog farming

Meat eaters are increasingly looking for local, humane, environmentally friendly pork, which is spurring an increase in pasture-raised, organic farming. Advocates of outdoor hog raising say the industry model is simply hiding costs in excess pollution, government subsidies and lax regulation.

Treatment, taste and trends

Giving hogs a diverse diet and some space seems better for their health—and ours. And small-scale hog farmers are helping preserve swine diversity that could prove crucial to food security.

We sent reporters to the heart of hog production—North Carolina and Iowa, the two highest producing states—to see firsthand how the booming industry is re-shaping the rural U.S.

In North Carolina, hog workers are Guinea pigs of antibiotic resistance and the state's industry titans consistently battle with neighbors in court. In Iowa, a bipartisan undercurrent of rebellion is pushing for local control and a re-imagining of 21 st Century farm life. Meet the characters raising hogs on pasture, without metal cages or drugs. Learn how renewable energy ideas may put a dent in manure piles and methane loads.

Hog farming consolidation has forever reshaped farm communities. Peak Pig takes readers to the frontlines of controversy in the countryside and investigates what it means to be rural in an age of mega-farms.