Report into Foot and Mouth environmental impacts reveals uncertainties about long-term effects

A new report by the Environment Agency, published on 27 February, has revealed that although most of the impact of the Foot and Mouth outbreak last year was short-term and localised, it is not known whether there will be any long-term impact on groundwater from the burial of carcasses and pyre ash.

Any impacts on the groundwater could take time to materialise, says the Environment Agency. To date, no serious or persistent impacts have been detected, said an Agency statement, which added that sites where large amounts of carcasses or ash have been buried will need to remain the focus of long-term management and monitoring.

“Overall, the immediate environmental impact of the Foot and Mouth outbreak appears to have been limited, but we are left with a legacy of mass burial sites that will require management and monitoring well into the future,” said Environment Agency Chairman Sir John Harman. “The biggest environmental impact of the outbreak, however, is likely to be due to any restructuring of the farming industry as a consequence. We hope that will be beneficial. This opportunity must be grasped to bring farming onto a more sustainable footing whereby food production, rural well-being and environmental enhancement are promoted together.”

Future contingency planning must include a central principle of minimising waste, and should also include plans for maximising the use of properly licensed and regulated disposal facilities such as rendering, incineration and licensed landfilling, says the Environment Agency. However, the Agency points out that best option is to make all possible efforts to minimise disease risks in the first place.

The Foot and Mouth outbreak, that ran from the announcement of the first cases in February last year, to the agreement by the European Commission to lift the ban on exports of British meat in the middle of January this year. In all, there were 2,030 confirmed cases, 50% of which were in Cumbria, Devon and North Yorkshire, resulting in the slaughter of nearly six million animals – 8% of livestock in England and Wales. This meant that there were an estimated 600,000 tonnes of carcases requiring disposal, equivalent to 30% of annual commercial and industrial food waste, or 2% of annual household waste, says the Environment Agency.

In all, there were over 200 reported water pollution incidents, three of which were classified as causing serious damage, and 300 complaints about odour from landfill and mass burial sites associated with the disease, says the Agency. With regard to groundwater, there were only two private water supplies, which were contaminated with microbes related to burial. There was no significant soil contamination.

Of the animal waste, 131,000 tonnes were rendered at seven rendering plants, a technique which has minimal environmental impact provided that appropriate controls are in place and good practice was used, says the Agency. Meat and bone meal produced by rendering was then incinerated, which also had minimal environmental impact.

A further 95,000 tonnes of animal waste were deposited in 29 landfill sites, which also had minimal environmental impact. However, 61,000 tonnes of animal waste were buried in four mass burial sites, which, where Environment Agency advice was followed, there would have been minimal environmental impact. Nevertheless, accelerated construction timescales may have made their effectiveness less certain in the long term, says the Agency.

There are also 900 sites dispersed around the country where carcases have been buried on farms, which have potential logistical environmental management problems, says the Agency. During the outbreak there were a number of complaints regarding the burial of carcases, with one site even having to be exhumed because Environment Agency advice had not been followed, and there was a possibility that drinking water had been contaminated.

There are also 950 recorded sites on farms where animal carcases were burned, which had the potential for emissions to exceed health standards, and which required appropriate disposal methods for the resulting ash. In April last year, the Department of Health admitted that mass burning could cause air quality standards to be exceeded downwind of pyres.

As well as potential problems from the animals themselves, there was also an estimated 1.3 million litres – before dilution – of disinfectants used, resulting in 2,370 authorisations for disinfectant disposal . Other risks included the need to find alternative facilities for farm wastes normally applied to land such as slurry and manure, and possible increases in illegal pollution activities and an increase in flood risk as a consequence of the inability of Agency staff to inspect sites.

However, there were also reduced environmental impacts due to the reduced number of visitors to the countryside, and in some areas, the cut in density of livestock where there was a mass cull.

The report concludes, however that in general the pressures caused by the Foot and Mouth outbreak were small compared with the overall long-term pressures caused by farming practices in general.

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