Fighting potential health horrors
by: Stephanie Woodard
© Indian Country Today June 02, 2008. All Rights Reserved
Yankton Sioux stand firm as hog farm goes to court

MARTY, S.D. – In a commencement address at Marty Indian School’s high school graduation May 16, Gary Drapeau, Ihanktowan Dakota and a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe’s elected leadership, praised the graduating class.

”You have carried yourselves with dignity and respect,” he told the 24 students, many of whom had won college scholarships and prizes. ”The day you were born, you were somebody, and you’ve continued to be that spirit who walks with you.”

Drapeau went on to note that several students were arrested at recent protests against a large-scale hog farm, or ”concentrated animal feeding operation [CAFO],” that Hull, Iowa-based Long View Farms is working around the clock, seven days a week, to construct on private land within reservation boundaries.

The company’s rush seems to arise from its precarious legal position. In defiance of a tribal court exclusion order, the firm is using a BIA road to access the site. To overcome that obstacle, Long View Farms has gone to federal court seeking a ruling that the tribe has no jurisdiction over it, even on tribal property.

Another federal suit, by tribal members, asks a judge to halt construction because the farm did not do an environmental impact statement, as required for reservation projects, and would violate federal regulations protecting children’s health.

In the meantime, the Ihanktowan have set up an ongoing protest site, including tribal flags and a permanent fire, on tribal property bordering the farm.

”We stood up for the nation,” Drapeau told the graduates. ”It hasn’t been pleasant, but we did it for the children.”

Neurotoxins and superbugs

The youngsters to whom Drapeau referred include not only students at Marty Indian School, located in the Yankton Sioux’s main village about four miles from the farm, but also preschoolers at the Head Start about a mile away. All would be exposed to potent poisons, including ammonia and the neurotoxin hydrogen sulfide, emitted by the vast amounts of manure created by the 70,000 pigs that would be produced annually.

Other airborne pollutants released by hog farms include drug-resistant pathogens that are the result of the antibiotics the pigs consume, according to former U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher James Zahn. His findings were suppressed by the agency, generating sharp criticism by the Union of Concerned Scientists, among others.

Because air pollution travels on the wind, a large area may be affected. ”At Rosebud, we can smell the hog farm we’ve been trying to get rid of here for 18 or 19 miles,” said district council member Claudette Arcoren, Sicangu Lakota. Arcoren, who has long fought such facilities, joined the Yankton protesters.

”CAFOs are an enormous public health problem in the making, on our reservation and nationwide,” said Faith Spotted Eagle, Ihanktowan Dakota, cultural resources specialist and therapist.

Fears for the environment

The siting of the farm on the Yankton reservation has provoked concerns that manure spills, along with the application of toxin-ridden manure to fields in the surrounding watershed – as Long View Farms plans to do – will contaminate the local water and wreak regional environmental devastation.

The operation is on a hilltop right on top of two aquifers: a shallow one that feeds some local wells, and the low-lying Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies deeper wells and contains water for much of the Great Plains.

Within a few miles of the CAFO are springs and wetlands. A nearby stream empties into a 100-mile stretch of the Missouri that is designated a National Wild and Scenic River, which could potentially suffer algae blooms resulting from ammonia contamination. Tribal members also fear impacts on several endangered species thriving in and around the waterway, as well as hundreds of bald eagles in a preserve bordering it.

A personal story

”People think hog farms’ odor is simply a nuisance,” said Joan Olive, speech therapist at Marty Indian School. ”In fact, it’s a serious health risk. Several years ago, I was exposed to hydrogen sulfide when farmers a mile from my parents’ Iowa farm spread manure on the fields. It caused me to suffer what appeared at first to be a stroke.”

Olive recalled that her speech suddenly became slurred, and muscles all over her body began to twitch. ”It took a month to recover, and now I have severe chemical allergies. It changed my life.”

She fled Iowa, where air quality has plummeted and neurological disorders due to hydrogen sulfide exposures are rising, according to The New York Times. She got a job she loves at Marty Indian School, which she calls ”a school with heart,” and settled down in the rolling hills of the Yankton reservation.

With the advent of the hog farm on the reservation, her life changed again. She began working to bring members of the non-Native community into the fight against the CAFO. Many attended a public forum on the farm, and county officials are preparing zoning that would bar such operations in the future.

”Factory farms look for counties that don’t have zoning and are desperate for economic development. But this farm offers the county just 13 jobs. And is it development if you have to spend your money on medical care?”

Research by Steve Wing and Suzanne Wolf, epidemiologists at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, supports Olive’s assessment. Corporate-owned farms tend to site their operations in poor and non-white communities, which are taking the brunt of CAFO-related health risks, the scientists found.

”The wealthy pollute, and the poor suffer,” Olive said.

Looking forward

”Standing up to the farm has been a solidarity builder for the nation,” said Glenn Drapeau, Ihanktowan Dakota and a biology teacher at Marty Indian School.

Other Native communities have sent their flags to be flown with the Yankton Sioux flag and others already at the site, Drapeau reported. ”We’re in the center of Turtle Island. This could be the beginning of an indigenous United Nations.”

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