In the excellent film The Gathering Storm British actor Albert Finney convincingly portrayed Winston Churchill. One memorable scene takes place in the yard of the politician’s country farm.
“Dogs look up to us,” Sir Winston grumbles, “cats look down on us, and pigs are prepared to regard us as equals.”
The comment rings true for anyone who knows pigs, which are intelligent animals. Sadly, we don’t return this consideration.
Hog farming has become an industrial business in North America, and the hog mega-farms generate tonnes of waste, the improper disposal of which that has harmed thousands of hectares of agricultural land and natural soil, surface water and groundwater systems across North America.
On October 15 news reports blared nationwide that seven men face nearly 80 charges linked to Canadian pig farms housing as many as 10,000 sick and dying animals. The charges were filed against officials of Wood Lynn Farms Ltd., once Canada’s largest pig exporter, according to Ontario’s London Free Press.
Wood Lynn Farms was not charged because it declared bankruptcy during the investigation, OSPCA spokesperson Brian Pemberton said, but senior company officials were. In total, 77 charges were laid, including causing unnecessary pain, causing unnecessary suffering, willful neglect and abandoning an animal in distress.
This is certainly an extreme situation, but not as unusual as one might think. And the callous regard for the welfare of animals often translates into an overly casual attitude toward disposal of pig manure, which is hosed away from under the metal grate floors of the indoor enclosures, turned into slurry and then land-applied.
It used to be that small farms raised their hogs humanely, and straw beds helped partially compost the waste before it was used as fertilizer (in sane quantities). But nowadays straw is often not used, since it’s an expense and causes the animals to forage a bit — this slight “exercise” might slow the fattening of the creatures a bit, and cut into profits.
Pigs generate three to eight times the amount of waste as human beings, so the sludge from a single factory hog farm can equal that of a whole town of people. As happened with catastrophic results in North Carolina, Quebec hog farmers have bought up huge tracts of land and overloaded the fields with slurried pig manure. Up to a third of Quebec’s “green zone” lands show signs of damage from the poor waste disposal practices, and many creeks and waterways have been contaminated.
Quebec recently imposed a moratorium on new hog mega-farms, but the operations — which work like low-margin Pizza Pizza franchises — have expanded into Eastern Ontario and the Prairies, where the aforementioned abuse is reappearing.
For the purposes of this magazine, and the waste industry generally, the treatment of such farms by municipal government and the courts is a concern as waste facilities are also often treated in the press as being the source of environmental problems.
That’s why the Ontario Superior Court case of Peacock v. Norfolk County et al. is notable. In the Peacock case, the court upheld the actions of officials of Norfolk County when they refused to issue a building permit to the Peacocks. The permit would have allowed the construction of an expanded intensive hog farming operation. It was refused pursuant to an interim control by-law that required a one-year freeze on such permits in order to allow the completion of a study of their environmental impact.
The farm in question was less than 1,000 metres up-stream from municipal water wells used to supply water to the Town of Simcoe. In addition, waste produced by the hogs would have been spread on other lands owned by the Peacocks in the same watershed as the municipal water wells.
The court, in upholding the decision to refuse the building permit, noted that the Peacocks had not undertaken any surface or groundwater studies to determine the possible adverse affects of the proposed expansion. The court found it “troubling” that the site for the operation was chosen based solely on economic considerations apparently without regard for environmental considerations.
The Peacock case is particularly important to all industries that may be perceived as risky from an environmental point of view; it demonstrates how the courts are interpreting environmental legislation in the wake of the events in Walkerton and the report of Justice O’Conner. Having quoted the report of Justice O’Conner in detail, the court in Peacock referred to Walkerton as a “wake-up-call” and stated that protection of the community is an overriding interest that trumps any lesser interests. Whether considering hog farms, large waste facilities or other environmentally sensitive projects, the Walkerton tragedy will likely, as the court in Peacock states, “require a reassessment of commonly accepted principles and should be reason enough to cause a shift in emphasis when weighing private rights against public interest concerns.”
This is likely only the first of many cases in which courts will carefully consider and rely upon the O’Conner report in deciding such matters. More to come…
Adam Chamberlain, LL.B. is with Power Budd, the Canadian affiliate of Cameron McKenna, an international law and consulting firm. Adam sits on the board of directors of the Ontario Waste Management Association. E-mail Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org