- MABTON, Wash. - Rocky Ross
jubilantly swung his sport utility vehicle into the Sunnyside Wildlife
Area, certain he had caught his prey: illegal dumpers. His grin collapsed
to a wry smile when the quarry turned out to be two reporters caught peering
at a half-dozen dead calves.
- The wildlife area, located just three miles from the
dairy farm where the nation's first case of mad cow disease was discovered,
has been turned into a dump site for dead animals - everything from goats,
sheep and calves to cats and puppies.
- Ross has managed the 10,538-acre wildlife area in this
Yakima Valley town for more than two years, but the problem has gone on
much longer. He attributes it to a select few local farmers who don't have
the money to properly dispose of animals that die before slaughter and
lack respect for public lands.
- The problem was had nothing to do with mad cow disease
- until now.
- The Washington mad cow case, ensuing international bans
on U.S. beef products, and new regulations to prevent another incident
raise questions about how dead farm animals should be disposed of and whether
the costs will rise too high for some farmers.
- "It's still a big unknown," said Tom Cook,
president of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Renderers Association.
- Farmers currently are allowed to bury animals on their
own property, dump them at licensed landfills or send them to rendering
plants where the carcasses are exposed to extreme heat and reduced to bone
- Renderers used to provide their services to farmers free
of charge. Rising costs and declining value of the byproducts forced them
to start charging, Cook said.
- Recent events could drive those costs even higher.
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Dec. 23
that a Washington state dairy cow had tested positive for mad cow disease,
or bovine spongiform encephalopathy.
- More than 40 countries subsequently banned U.S. beef
products, and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced sweeping changes
designed to ensure the safety of the meat supply.
- Those changes include an increased push for a national
animal tracking system and a ban on slaughtering cows that cannot walk
unaided, the same animals most likely to be tested for the disease.
- Veneman said the changes may require that testing be
focused on rendering plants instead of slaughterhouses.
- But adding testing to the rendering plants' duties only
adds to their costs at a time when their products - meat and bone meal
for feed and tallow that is used in everything from soap to fertilizer
- are being turned away under the ban, Cook said.
- "There are going to be added costs," Cook said.
"What costs are going to be borne by the renderers, what costs are
going to be paid by somebody else, and what costs are going to be passed
on to the producers? We don't know the answer to that yet."
- Baker Commodities Inc., a California-based rendering
company that operates in 13 states, lost $500,000 just by making its ships
turn around after countries banned its products.
- "We're absolutely taking a hit with the mad cow
case," said Ray Kelly, executive vice president.
- Farmers who have their dead animals rendered typically
pay the cost of transportation, which can vary from $25 to $55 for a full-size
animal, he said. "Since BSE, it's probably going to go up."
- As expected, the impacts are trickling down.
- Dan Bulski's meat processing company in Bozeman, Mont.,
pays about $35 per week to a rendering company to haul away carcasses.
- "It's going to go up," Bulski said. "With
the rendering companies, it's been a struggle for them to make it. Now,
with this mad cow, there's going to be some more fallout."
- Bulski couldn't say if the fallout includes illegal dumping
of animals. The vast majority of farmers and butchers follow the rules,
he said, but he pointed out that many landfills don't accept animal waste.
- Amid the sagebrush-dotted uplands and cattail-ribboned
wetlands of a 1,000-acre section of the Sunnyside Wildlife Area, the dumping
has been going on for years. In his first winter on the job, Ross found
31 animal carcasses between December and February.
- Last month, the remains of about a dozen calves lined
the road leading up to the wildlife area. More could be seen in the dirt
parking lot. Magpies and coyotes scavenge on the carcasses.
- The state Department of Fish and Wildlife lost its local
enforcement position in state budget cuts, and catching the illegal dumpers
hasn't proven easy, Ross said.
- Farmers in Washington state can bury animals on the farm
as long as they are buried with at least two feet of soil cover on top,
10 feet above the seasonal high of ground water and 100 feet away from
wells or other surface waters.
- Still, most choose the rendering process if they can
afford it, said Art McEwen, an environmental health specialist with the
Yakima County Health Department.
- Most also follow the rules, Ross said. Aluminum cans,
beer bottles and paper far outnumber carcasses among the garbage dumped
at the wildlife area, he said.
- Ross almost laughs about catching the culprits.
- "I'm not sure I want to," he said. "There's
days I'm in pretty good humor, and there's days that I'm not."