WASHINGTON – Organizations representing conservation, environmental justice and public health interests petitioned the US Department of Agriculture urging the agency to ban on-site incineration and mass burial of hogs culled during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The petition also calls for the creation of a public database to document the culls and the locations of carcass burials.

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity filed the petition on behalf of 14 organizations.

An oversupply of live hogs have necessitated the cull of approximately 700,000 head per week. Capacity limitations at pork processing facilities caused by outbreaks of coronavirus among plant workers led to pandemic-related closures, absenteeism and slower line speeds which ultimately created backups in the just-in-time supply chain for pork. Processing plants simply could not keep pace with pork producers moving animals into the market for slaughter.

“Petitioners are deeply concerned that unrestricted, undisclosed mass carcass disposal poses imminent and substantial threats to people and the environment,” the petition said. “That this disposal is taking place in the midst of a preexisting global pandemic only heightens Petitioners’ concerns, as does the growing body of evidence establishing that communities of color are suffering disproportionately as a result of COVID-19.”

The organizations behind the petition say they are sympathetic to the plight of livestock producers. But they also believe major meat and poultry processors can do a better job.

“It’s horrific that when slaughterhouses temporarily cut production, industrial farming operations simply kill and discard millions of pigs and chickens,” said Hannah Connor, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “There are real risks to people here, as well as the environment, from the disposal of these animals. Burying or burning animals on this scale pollutes our air and threatens rural water supplies.”

Valerie Baron, a senior attorney at NRDC, said mass burials and incineration of hog carcasses “…are among the most dangerous for human health and present a threat to drinking water.

“With hurricane, flood and fire seasons exacerbating the dangers of these unfettered operations, it’s even more urgent for the USDA to step up and take action to protect people, instead of ‘Big Ag’,” Baron said.

Other groups joining the petition include: Animal Legal Defense Fund, Association of Irritated Residents, Cape Fear River Watch, Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, Coastal Carolina Riverwatch, Environmental Working Group, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, MountainTrue, Sound Rivers and Waterkeeper Alliance.