“Tea, Earl Grey … hot.”
And then there was tea.
Those four words carry the reflective imaginings of humanity’s culmination of technological advances. Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the starship U.S.S. Enterprise in the late 24th century frequently murmured that statement in the popular science fiction television series, “Star Trek,” which aired from 1987 to 1994.
He spoke them to a machine known as “replicator,” a piece of technology that takes vertical integration to its ultimate, crowning completion. In a swirling manifestation of particles, the machine assembles the fundamental constituents of matter (i.e. atoms) in the span of seconds to produce the final consumer product, ready for consumption.
A single microwave-sized appliance becomes the producer, processor and distributor, pulling together all the components for the tea, the cup and the saucer … and it’s advanced enough to eliminate waste.
Today, on a much larger and less fantastical scale, corporations with access to enormous amounts of capital can purchase the resources and technology capable of analogous product replication. They can purchase the resources and the technology that allows them to agglomerate the process of product creation. Although, they do produce waste.
The situation is similar to the proposed Costco poultry operation that, barring any environmental or economic resistance, may begin construction in the Fremont area as soon as late summer of 2016, as reported by Walt Schafer, project manager.
Because those companies muster together enormous amounts of material resources into one geographical location, concerns of environmental and health impacts within that area become important issues to monitor. Endless federal and state laws exist to address those topics.
The Nebraska Department of Environmental Equality Administrative Code clearly states:
“For new large … concentrated animal feeding operations, there shall be no discharge of manure, litter, or process wastewater pollutants into waters of the state from the production area. The production area shall be operated in accordance with these regulations and designed, constructed, operated and maintained to contain all manure, litter, and process wastewater including all runoff and direct precipitation.”
However, the use of site “specific innovative technologies” may allow the owners and operators of a large facility to request alternative restrictions if the technology has been shown to achieve results similar to standard methods.
Technology however, has come a long way in reducing environmental impact from large industrial operations (including livestock facilities). According to Steve Goans, deputy director of water for the NEQ, large-line covered lagoon cells collect waste water into an anaerobic environment. The breakdown of that waste produces methane. The methane can then be used in generators for electricity, sold to a pipeline company or “flared off.”
“We have several anaerobic digesters around the state … they can handle a high-waste water load,” said Goans.
Additionally, Goans stated that the lagoons are built to standards that can prevent overflow in the case of flooding rains.
“Those lagoons are built one foot above the 100-year flood stage,” Goans said, and to his knowledge there has never been a lagoon overflow at a large operating facility in Nebraska.
Often, Goans explained, after being pre-treated by the facility the waste water will then be treated again by the city’s wastewater treatment facilities.
Willow Holoubek, executive director of the Alliance for the Future Agriculture in Nebraska works closely with Nebraska farmers contracted under vertically integrated companies. She has witnessed some of these technologies in use by large agricultural operations and at other types of facilities.
“(Methane processing) is not a complicated process,” Holoubek said citing the Butler County Landfill which uses an active methane gas collection system.
Brian McManus of the Nebraska DEQ also verified that “capturing methane for energy use is a process that has been done before.”
According to Schafer, any poultry operation established in the area would be state-of-the art “One of the best in the world,” he stated in a prior discussion.
Schafer told the Fremont Tribune that the Costco facility would also contain strict bio-security measures during transportation to and from the facilities. Also stringent blood sampling would be conducted to prevent avian flu.
One thing to keep in mind however, because of agglomeration – concentrating a large amount of resources and animals in one area – any disaster could potentially produce significant economic, environmental and health-related risks.
In the case of bird flu outbreaks, Dr. Kate Brooks of the department of agriculture economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln acknowledges, in such a facility the results could be potentially devastating to the birds, with subsequent fallout to the economy.
David Swenson, associate scientist at the department of economics at Iowa State University agreed.
“Bird flu spreads like wild-fire. If it takes in a region, it takes. And sick birds are otherwise apparent in just 48 hours,” Swenson wrote in an email to the Tribune.
The Iowa governor declared a state of emergency in 2015 when several poultry facilities experienced avian flu outbreak. Because of emergency response, technology and bio-containment practices, no humans were ever infected.
While no technology is perfect, it continues to improve and buffer the impacts of big, all-encompassing industries.
“Food safety technology has come so far,” Holoubek said. “And of all the protein sources, poultry is the least impactful to communities and to the environment.”