On June 9, the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change held a remote hearing, “Pollution and Pandemics: COVID-19’s Disproportionate Impact on Environmental Justice Communities.” The Center for Progressive Reform, joined by Fair Farms, Sentinels of Eastern Shore Health (SESH), and the Sussex Health and Environmental Network submitted a fact sheet to subcommittee members outlining the impacts of COVID-19 on the Delmarva Peninsula, along with a number of recommendations for building a more sustainable model for the region.
The area is home to a massive poultry industry, hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. We addressed several of the most severe problems in our fact sheet, including the following.
Public Health Harms from 'Depopulation'
Because of pandemic-driven staffing shortages, approximately 2 million chickens in the region, likely more, have been killed without having been processed into consumer-ready meat. According to the industry, once the birds grow beyond a certain point, they cannot be readily processed by the region's slaughterhouses, so killing these birds with unspecified "humane" methods was the only practical alternative. The bodies of these "depopulated" birds, to use industry's term, have been left in the poultry houses where they were raised to decompose.
- Composting birds on a massive scale creates a number of health threats, especially for those who live nearby. In addition to harboring pathogens like E. coli and Salmonella that can contaminate food and water, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) can also contribute to the spread of zoonotic diseases (like the coronavirus fueling the current pandemic). A mass grave of decomposing birds also inevitably yields a foul odor that contributes to odor annoyance and stress among nearby residents.
- Even under normal conditions, CAFOs pose various health threats. Noxious gases like ammonia and sulfur dioxide can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat of nearby residents. CAFOs also emit fine particulate matter (PM2.5) that can lodge deep within the respiratory tract and harm our heart and lungs. In the last five years, several studies have connected community proximity to CAFOs to pneumonia, asthma exacerbations, lung disease, stress, and respiratory and gastrointestinal infections.
- Research shows that CAFOs are disproportionately sited near poor families and communities of color who face barriers to accessing health care, stress from systemic racism, and higher rates of chronic disease.
Worker Safety at Risk
Hundreds of Delmarva slaughterhouse workers, along with their family members, are infected with COVID-19; at least five have died. Animal processing facilities, where employees work shoulder to shoulder, have become the nation’s leading hotspots for the spread of the virus. Farm workers have also been deemed “essential” and face similar threats.
- Across the country, thousands of meatpacking workers have become infected from the virus and hundreds have died. Worker attendance at the Delmarva Region’s 10 slaughterhouses has averaged at about 50 percent. Farmworkers face certain occupational hazards that make them particularly vulnerable to illness due to high rates of respiratory disease.
- Slaughterhouse workers have been routinely denied social distancing protocols, face masks, paid sick leave, and other important measures that prioritize worker safety over profits. Substandard housing and lack of access to running water and stable transportation also make social distancing a challenge for farmworkers, putting other workers and family members in the community at risk.
- These issues are compounded by the fact that many farmworkers and slaughterhouse workers are immigrants or on guest-worker visas and are not afforded the same protections other workers may have, even when deemed “essential.” When individuals are not afforded fundamental rights, they are open to abuse, which is only exacerbated in times of crisis.
Heightened Environmental Impacts
Killing millions of birds in a geographically concentrated area creates a new waste stream in an ecosystem already overburdened by environmental pollution, especially phosphorus. Land application, where the dead chicken compost would be spread on fields similar to fertilizer, has been recommended as a means to dispose of the dead chicken compost, but this type of compost is generally higher in phosphorus than chicken manure and would pose serious run-off concerns.
- The poultry houses where chickens have been killed have essentially turned into make-shift compost facilities but may not be adequately structured to successfully compost and contain the decaying birds. The process for composting dead broiler chickens also breeds pathogens, nuisance insects, fly larvae, bacteria, and viruses.
- The CAFOs on the Delmarva Peninsula are already creating more phosphorus pollution than the region can adequately handle, and agriculture is the single largest source of nutrient pollution to the Chesapeake Bay watershed as a whole. In 2018, the Delmarva poultry industry generated approximately 1.1 billion pounds of phosphorus-laden manure.
To build a more resilient economy, healthier communities, and a cleaner environment, we recommend supporting policies that:
- Invest in the diversification of agriculture across the region. This move will yield greater economic benefits, provide greater employment opportunities, increase local spending, produce more tax revenues for local governments, and make these communities more adaptable in the face of future crises.
- Support the creation and licensing of smaller slaughterhouses, and related storage infrastructure, where social distancing is possible and where direct marketing to consumers is more feasible. This will reduce the risk of future mass killing events and provide smaller farms with needed processing infrastructure.
- Provide support, both technical and financial, for farmers who want to transition from conventional feed grain to organic feed grain. This would increase supply security, shorten the supply chain, and reduce reliance on imports of organic grain.
- Fund measures that increase rural broadband and help get local food into the hands of local communities. Smaller farms that sell direct-to-consumer have been thriving during the pandemic, but rural farms have demonstrated the need for resources like broadband to help them scale up.
- Provide greater support for farm and slaughterhouse workers, such as hazard pay and increased labor protections. These workers are essential and are designated as such. The right of essential workers to live in the region where they work should be protected regardless of their documentation status.