Swinish Behavior

Texas A&M's attempt to push an animal research center on a black neighborhood has raised a sour smell in College Station

As for soil studies and waste management plans, Beverly hefts a thick, three-ring, indexed binder dated January of this year, which he has sent to the residents' lawyer. He's confident, he says, that the soil has a layer of impermeable clay that will protect the local ground water. But more than that, the university has a water management plan that will protect local wells. There will also be odor monitors. This facility will enable the university to teach students how to run an environmentally sensitive operation.

Beverly pulls his Suburban to a flattened, elevated site where the animal facility's waste lagoons are being dug. More than 200 yards long, their purpose is to treat the ton of manure a day that A&M estimates its animals will produce. As much as anything in A&M's plans, these lagoons are a sore point with the Brushy Community. Waste lagoons for a huge hog operation in North Carolina fractured a while back and poisoned a 17-mile stretch of a nearby river. A&M's lagoons are poised directly above the Brazos. The clay in the College Station area tends to expand and contract so powerfully that it cracks foundations and breaks water pipes. The Brushy Community residents, who've been delving into research on waste lagoons, say that such lagoons inevitably crack and leak. And they want to know whether they can trust A&M to build to standards that will prevent such breakage from happening.

As he looked at the long flat scrape from which the lagoons would be scooped, Beverly insisted there was nothing to worry about. The folks in the Brushy Community needed to remember something important, he said: "We helped write the standards."

But the real question might be, who enforces the standards? On a bright, windy, Sunday afternoon in early February, a professor took me to the western end of Texas A&M's sprawling campus where the George Bush Presidential Library is being constructed, and where A&M presently houses its pigs.

It was easy to see why A&M wants to move its animals. Its old hog farm consists of three aging barns several hundred yards from the rising walls of the Bush Library. Only a few dozen hogs live there now, and they'll soon be gone. Manure from the barns is pumped into three treatment ponds. The digestive bacteria in the main treatment lagoon were clearly at work, for the water had a characteristic pink, rosy sheen. Periodically, a bubble of gas would burp from the bottom and ripple the surface in a slow circle.

Standing down wind, I could get a whiff of why the residents of the Brushy Community were so angry when A&M first announced its intentions. Hog smell is often said to be indescribable. It is something like the smell of rotten, scorched leather and sulfur. The odor is vaguely petrochemical and not nearly as sweet as something dead. When hog odor is concentrated in warm weather, it seems to suck the oxygen out of the air. Runners from the central campus who make the four-mile circuit called the "pig loop" have sometimes been forced to turn back, and the air at baseball games nearby has been befouled when the winds blow in the wrong direction.

My guide to see the old A&M hog farm was Brann Johnson, a geology professor who has taught at A&M for the last 21 years. Thinking the dispute over the livestock facility had been settled, last December Johnson bought a home site near the Brushy Community. Then he learned that the plans, as far as A&M were concerned, were still on go.

Johnson's expertise is on the movement of water through soils, and he believes that the university hasn't taken the right borings to know what soil structures lie under the Brushy Community site. After looking at nearby soil outcroppings, he's concluded that it's distinctly possible that leakage from a waste lagoon could migrate into the Brushy Community's water table.

As to whether the lagoons would leak, Johnson figures that the university ought to be judged on its past rather than on future promises. As we walked along the earthen berm on the edge of the old swine lagoon, Johnson paused. "Listen," he said. He mashed his running shoe into the berm, making a squishing noise. "This thing is leaking and is probably leaking down to that landslide."

He pointed downhill to a slump of dirt above a narrow creek that runs through the campus. The length of the berm and a small field behind the pig barn were saturated with water at a time when the ground had been dry for weeks. A&M was promising to build a state-of-the-art facility to handle animal waste at its Brushy Community site, but it didn't seem to take good care of its existing facility. In fact, for the last five years, the state has been pestering the animal science department to clean up its dairy barns, which were leaking waste into a nearby creek. After years of delay, the university is supposed to start construction on another dairy lagoon this spring. What worries Johnson is that money for managing such facilities comes from the animal science department's annual budget, and department budgets have been under a lot of pressure.

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