Largest ever fine for water pollution goes to a CAFO—and it’s a horse track in New Orleans

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That’s more than the agency has issued to dairies, egg farms, cattle operations, or hog farms, even though they likely outnumber horse tracks. (CAFO data is notoriously opaque.) And while it’s a little harder to see what horse racing has to do with our food, rest assured, we’ll connect the dots for you.

“This would have a significant impact where you have oyster and fishing industries,” said Tiong Aw, a public health microbiologist at Tulane University, of EPA’s settlement with the track. “Dumping manure contributes to the nitrogen in the lake, which creates harmful algal blooms that have a negative effect on oysters grown for human consumption, and for restoration.”

During racing season, which lasts about four months, EPA says Fair Grounds stabled as many as 1,800 horses at a time. Each of them was capable of producing around 55 pounds of manure per day, according to farm science estimates. Unlike the wet manure made by hogs and dairy cows, which festers in lagoons, the manure made by horses is comparatively hard, which means it can be stored in piles, and dumpstered away. 

But according to EPA, much of that waste was unlawfully washed down storm water drains and into the New Orleans municipal sewer system. (The agency said its settlement with Fair Grounds, which includes a consent decree, will divert 5 million pounds of manure from the system every year.) The manure made its way into the Mississippi River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico, where it joined a stream of nutrient-rich farm runoff from the Upper Midwest—animal poop, but also loads of synthetic crop fertilizers—that contributes to an excessive growth of algae in local waters. 

These algal blooms can force beach closures, which impacts the state’s summer tourism economy. And the notorious hypoxic “dead zone,” as the biggest bloom is called, starves the Gulf of Mexico of oxygen, sending fish, shrimp, and crabs to deeper waters, and killing shellfish. 

And here’s what all that has to do with what we eat: The Gulf supplies 72 percent of America’s shrimp harvest, 66 percent of its oysters, and 16 percent of commercial fish. When those millions and millions of pounds of manure from horse tracks collide with streams of agricultural runoff, you get a tsunami’s worth of strain on our domestic seafood supply. 

“Personally, I can’t see anybody who’d want to go fishing in an area where five million pounds of horse waste is flowing in,” said Matt Rota, senior policy director at Healthy Gulf, a New Orleans-based environmental nonprofit. 

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