Nearly 42 million of the nation’s poultry have been euthanized after being infected with a virulent strain of avian influenza, and now local and federal authorities are struggling to dispose of the remains.
The outbreak currently extends to 15 states across the Midwest, but Iowa is the hardest hit. With more than 25 million birds infected across 67 farms at last count, the governor of Iowa—the nation’s top egg producer—has issued a state of emergency in hopes of containing the outbreak. Other states where cases have been reported include Arkansas, California, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin.
Even when a single case is detected in a barn, all of its inhabitants must be culled in order to stop the spread of the outbreak, and in some cases, farms have had to euthanize their entire flocks.
This strain of avian influenza—H5N2—is a novel virus in the United States and has not previously been found in commercial poultry or wild bird populations. It is not capable of affecting humans at this time, and does not contaminate the food supply, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But according to the Iowa Department of Agriculture, the virus can spread rapidly through poultry operations, reaching 70 to 100 percent mortality rates within three to five days among poultry housed on floors, and 50 to 70 percent mortality rates within 10 to 15 days in caged poultry populations. The virus is spread through direct contact with fecal droppings and respiratory secretions of infected birds. It can also be spread by objects contaminated with the virus, such as shoes or clothing.
The Iowa Department of Agriculture has approved carbon dioxide and water-based foam to euthanize infected poultry, which can then be disposed of by composting, containerized burial, rendering, incineration and pressurized autoclaving.
Concerns of spreading the disease beyond county borders and miles of red tape have delayed the disposal process, with farm relying on composting or incinerating the carcasses on a small scale so far. But with more than 40 million birds culled to date, the problem is piling higher and higher.
Preparing for disposal
In the last weeks of May, three Iowa landfills finally received or were in the in final stages of receiving approval to begin accepting carcasses for disposal.
Alex Moon, land quality bureau chief for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources says his agency, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, has outlined special waste acceptance criteria that must be met prior to the acceptance and disposal of any infected carcasses from the outbreak. Moon says Iowa Waste Systems’ Loess Hills Landfill in Malvern, the Northwest Iowa Area Solid Waste Agency in Sheldon, and the Scott Area landfill in Scott County all have met the criteria and have been contracted to accept carcasses for disposal.
Reo Menning, CEO of Metro Waste Authority in Des Moines, Iowa, says the landfill was contacted by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to be a possible disposal site, but final contracts have not yet been approved. Out of nearly 500,000 residents living in the area around the landfill, Menning says the company has received only about four phone calls from people concerned about disposing the chicken carcasses.
Bob Glebs, president and chief executive officer of Iowa Waste Systems, says he too was approached by the Iowa DNR about accepting bird for disposal at the Loess Hills Landfill in Malvern. Within days, he was on a conference call with about 20 people from the DNR and USDA plus two other landfills.
“We were the only one that expressed interest in helping,” Glebs says.
The first holdup, however, is how authorities planned to send the birds to the landfill.
The H5N2 virus lives only about three days outside its host, and must search for a new one after its original host dies. With between 3 million to 4 million chickens in the area rotting in coops, Glebs says, the carcasses were placed in large bags to contain the spread of the virus. With decomposition, the temperatures inside of the bags—which are about 10 to 15 degrees greater than air temperatures—kill what virus is left, Glebs says.
But with the disposal issue unresolved, the bags were sitting for weeks and are now filling with methane gas, he adds. Another byproduct of decomposition in animals is water.
“We weren’t sure anyone on the phone understood that is they are going to put 15,000 chickens in a bag, that’s 36,000 gallons of water,” Glebs says, adding chickens are 90 percent water. “We required them to bulk it up with an absorbent like sawdust or bark.”
So Clean Harbors, the company contracted to help clean up the outbreak, fitted its workers in protective gear and they removed the chickens one-by-one, adding about 6,000 tons of sawdust before placing them back in to the bags.
To be considered as a disposal site, Glebs says, landfills must be able to provide a separated, previously filled area with a combination membrane and clay liner for the carcasses to be disposed of. At Loess Hills, the carcasses will be placed in a 16-acre section of the landfill with a berm around it. This section of the landfill has about 150 feet of clay and a liner. Glebs says workers will outfitted in personal protective gear and in trucks with biofilters will dig holes or trenches, then trucks are backed up to the berm. A Clean Harbors employee will then open the trailer gate and the bag containing the remains of the birds and its liner will slide into the hole. Glebs says the holes will immediately be backfilled with two to three feet of waste, then pressed with a backhoe. Immediately after that, additional soil and waste will be used to add more cover. Glebs says no special additives, such as lime, are required.
Glebs says despite the red tape, there is not much to the disposal process beyond business as usual.
“We’re right in the middle of farming USA,” he says. “We’ve taken smelly stuff before.”
He says the landfill accepts 1,000 to 1,500 tons of regular waste each day and routinely accepts some pretty foul agricultural waste.
“It’s really no different if you follow good burial procedures,” he says. “We know how to bury and we know how to deal with the smell.”
What did take Glebs off guard was the manpower and paperwork than accompanied the contract.
“The preparation is unbelievable,” he says. Glebs says in all, there was about 25 pages worth of criteria from USDA, the Iowa DNR and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to sort through, plus contracts to sign before all was said and done. The contracts were signed last week, and last week a few dozen workers showed up announcing they would take over biosecurity and burial at the site.
“It was a big surprise to us, since the virus was supposedly going to be dead that we had this many people,” Glebs says.
The team that arrived added several staging areas to the landfill, including a truck wash to decontaminate trucks, a tent area for employees, a personal decontamination area and a command trailer.
The Loess Hills landfill received its first shipment of birds on May 31. Overall, the landfill is slated to receive up to 1,000 bags containing 10,000 to 15,000 chickens in each.