Chickens and the egg

Pub date October 28, 2008
WriterVanessa Carr
SectionGreen CitySectionNews & Opinion


GREEN CITY The scene along a quiet, dead-end road in Lathrop — just 90 minutes east of San Francisco — is classically pastoral: a cloudless sky, a few small ranch houses scattered among small plots of farmland, a tractor humming in the distance.

But thanks to Olivera Egg Farm and its 700,000 chickens, country life is not all sunshine and butterflies. With a quick turn of the wind, the pleasant breeze suddenly sours to the sickening, fetid stench of ammonia from the nearby "lagoon" — a 16.5-acre cesspool of chicken manure that lies 370 feet from the nearest house.

"It takes your breath away," said Janice Magaoay, who has lived in a house neighboring the egg farm since the early 1970s. Magaoay is one of 10 residents who filed a civil lawsuit against Olivera in US District Court last week. Led by a legal team from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the lawsuit alleges that Olivera has been emitting up to 18 times the lawful amount of toxic ammonia gas without reporting it — a violation that could cost the farm a maximum of $32,500 per day in penalties.

The lawsuit against Olivera — whose owner, Edward Olivera, did not return our calls for comment — is one of a constellation of HSUS-led claims against the egg industry that tie into California’s Proposition 2. If passed, Prop. 2 would ban the use of farm animal confinement methods that do not allow animals to stand up, lie down, turn around, and fully extend their limbs.

Facilities like Olivera, which currently keeps only one of its 12 active hen houses cage-free, would have to thin their flocks significantly, said San Joaquin County Environmental Health Department program coordinator Robert McClellon.

Swarming with seagulls and flies, Olivera’s primary manure lagoon and adjacent overflow pond has a total volume equivalent to nearly 120 Olympic-sized swimming pools, according to company records filed with local environmental regulators. Despite its close proximity to a residential street with kids, the lagoon has no solid fence around it — perhaps because the unbearable stench acts as its own repellent.

Thirty-year resident Larry Yepez, 60, a retired firefighter and plaintiff in the case against Olivera, has passed by the lagoon on his jogging route for many years.

"I used to carry a towel around my face to keep the smell out of my nostrils," Yepez told the Guardian. "There were times when there must have been massive kill-offs because there were carcasses of dead chickens everywhere. It got to a point where I said, ‘I don’t think this is very healthy,’ so I started running away from that area."

Ten-year resident and plaintiff Gloria Avila, 60, often works outside growing produce for farmers markets in San Francisco. On some days, the ammonia is so strong she can barely open her eyes and has trouble breathing.

"It’s very, very bad," she repeats, grimacing, an open palm pressed against her chest.

She is not alone; the plaintiffs allege that their numerous health conditions — upper-respiratory problems, nausea, chest pains, as well as sinus, throat, and eye irritations — could be the result of ammonia exposure.

Nearby, a box of a dark purple fruit sitting on Avila’s porch crawls with a thick blanket of flies — another major issue for Olivera’s neighbors, who say the flies bite.

"We are told that because we live in an agricultural farm community, we have to accept it," Larry Yepez said.

Some local residents feel the odor comes with the territory.

"The egg farm has been there a long time," said Jerry West, a 15-year resident. "If you move out here, you should expect it."

Olivera has contributed $12,000 to support the No on 2 campaign, Californians for Safe Food, which is primarily funded by The United Egg Producers, a trade association of 250-plus of the country’s big egg producers — Olivera among them. The campaign argues that Prop. 2 poses a threat to public health by making eggs less safe, but it declined comment on the lawsuit against Olivera.

"Prop. 2 opponents have as little concern for the neighbors whose lives they are destroying with their pollution as they do for human health and animal welfare," Yes on Prop. 2 campaign manager Jennifer Fearing responds. She describes their claims about food safety as "scare tactics" and "the height of hypocrisy."

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