New Mexico Dairy Pollution Sparks 'Manure War' The New Mexico Environment Department reports that two-thirds of the state's 150 dairies are contaminating groundwater with excess nitrogen from cattle excrement. While no one wants to drive the milk cows out of the state, many want the dairies to clean up their act.
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New Mexico Dairy Pollution Sparks 'Manure War'

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New Mexico Dairy Pollution Sparks 'Manure War'

New Mexico Dairy Pollution Sparks 'Manure War'

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Across the country, big dairies are coming under increased criticism for polluting the air and the water. NPR's John Burnett has our report on New Mexico's manure war.

JOHN BURNETT: It's the diary product they don't tell you about. Everyday, an average cow produces six to seven gallons of milk and 18 gallons of manure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOOING)

BURNETT: Manure management, as it's called, is the dairy industry's greatest environmental challenge. Farms dispose of it in two ways.

(SOUNDBITE OF YELLING AND WHISTLING)

BURNETT: But the New Mexico Environment Department reports that two-thirds of the state's 150 dairies are contaminating groundwater with excess nitrogen from cattle excrement. Marcy Leavitt, director of Water and Wastewater, says either the lagoons are leaking, or manure is being applied too heavily on farmland.

MARCY LEAVITT: As we get more and more monitoring data, what we see is that more and more dairies have contamination underneath them. So, something isn't working about those facilities.

BURNETT: Community organizer Arturo Uribe says the dairies keep bigger and bigger, despite their proximity to his hometown of Mesquite.

ARTURO URIBE: You hear it often in community meetings. People describe, like, maybe five, six, seven years ago they could go out in front of their home and enjoy the afternoon, have a tardeada, eat some food. But now what these folks are saying is when they go out there, there's too many flies.

BURNETT: Even more serious than odor and flies, is the threat to the watershed. In the town of Dexter, in southeastern New Mexico, a dozen residential homes are surrounded by sprawling dairies on three sides.

HERBIE RODRIGUEZ: Herbie Rodriguez sits in the front yard of his mobile home, littered with family detritus and shoos away the flies that are everywhere. He says his family has been buying five-gallon bottles of water to drink and cook with, but they still wash with contaminated well water.

RODRIGUEZ: On a white, brand-new T-shirt, you can wash it in the water - brand-new - it would come out, like, brownish, you know - beige. That's how you can tell how bad the water was.

BURNETT: New Mexico's dairy industry denies the figure that two-thirds of its farms are polluting groundwater. Robert Hagevoort, a dairy extension agent and industry spokesman suggests critics are too quick to blame dairies.

ROBERT HAGEVOORT: They may have a septic tank that's leaking. That is the number one reason why domestic wells in New Mexico are contaminated. With that, I'm not saying that there's not issues and we're not working on some of these dairies. Dairymen are very adamant about being a good steward to the environment. They want to make sure that their families that live on these dairies can drink that water, can bathe in that water and their animals are healthy as well.

BURNETT: Unidentified Man: (Singing) Working for you, dairy farmers from your hometown.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV ADVERTISEMENT)

BURNETT: What's your reaction to that billboard?

JANA HUGHES: False advertisement. I mean, as someone who lives around dairies and knows dairies, that is not how it is. We're talking 2,000 cows confined in a small area, living in their own feces and urine.

BURNETT: John Woelber knows dairy farms are a nuisance. That's why he built his $5 million, 2,300-cow operation in remote high desert in Valencia County, 10 miles from his nearest neighbor.

JOHN WOELBER: The reason we're out here in the middle of nowhere is so we have no complaints, we have no neighbors that will come up and say, you've got too many flies or it smells. But that's why you live someplace where people don't want to move and the cows can live her comfortably and things work pretty well.

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow morning, we'll hear about one man's crusade to put cows back on grass and bring the flavor back to milk. And later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we'll hit the elementary school lunch line. In some cafeterias, chocolate milk is a thing of the past.

LEAVITT: No one is going to get regular milk if we have chocolate milk, 'cause I think they're going to like it better 'cause it tastes better. But it's not good for you, so I think we shouldn't have chocolate milk.

MONTAGNE: The battle over chocolate milk this afternoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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