Earlier this year, the highly infectious Avian Flu virus was found at Cold Spring Egg Farm in Palmyra Wisconsin, about an hour east of Madison. Over two and a half million chickens had to be killed on the farm to prevent spread of the virus, where they are now being moved across town to be composted in order to contain the virus.
But Palmyra residents are concerned, saying that the government agencies involved with the containment have not provided answers to questions about the safety of both domestic and wild birds in the area.
Weenonah Brattset is the supervisor for the town of Palmyra. She says that she has received little information from state or federal authorities about containment measures. And on top of that, she says what little information she has received has been misleading.
“One of the most alarming things for a lot of our residents is that in the very beginning we were told that the chicken carcusses were to be hauled in sealed trucks. Instead, they are in dump trucks with tarps over the top, and we have seen instances where the tarps were not tied down very tight and there were actually material, feathers, flying out of the truck. Naturally, residents are very alarmed,” Brattset says.
On the federal level, the responsible agency is the US Department of Agriculture. On the state level, that’s the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protections, or DATCP.
Dr. Adel Talaat is a professor of Microbiology at UW Madison. He says that the virus can live on any part of an infected chicken, including on feathers. He says that, from there, the virus can transmit to both other birds and people. He also said, though, that transmission of the Avian Flu to people is extremely rare in the US.
Talaat says that catching the disease before it infects a bird can be extremely tricky.
“The flu is one of those bad diseases that affect birds, mainly killing them right away. In the old days, they told us if you have an airborne disease going through a poultry house, as the air goes (through), birds die,” Talaat says.
When the airborne virus finds its way into a flock of birds, like at Cold Spring Egg Farm, the only way to contain the Avian Flu is to kill all potentially infected birds and dispose of them safely, such as in a compost pile. Once in the compost pile, the temperature of the birds rises until it is too warm for the virus to survive. In previous outbreaks, like in 2015, farmers are then able to safely use that compost as fertilizer.
In Palmyra, the compost site is about five miles away, with the dead birds being transported by loads and loads of trucks driving on aging country roads.
Marianne Schultz lives just two properties away from the compost site. She says that she was not properly warned by state officials of both the volume of the birds, and the way that they are being transported.
“As they’re going down the road, the tarps are flapping and the birds are mixing with the composting, or the carbon, and you can sometimes see feathers, sometimes bird parts. I think they are potentially exposing more birds to the bird flu, which is disheartening because it’s going past everyone’s properties and a lot of people keep chickens, myself included. So it’s concerning,” Schultz says.
Another issue that neighbors of the compost site have is the smell. Schultz was told by DATCP officials that there would be little to no smell coming off of the compost pile. But she says that on days when the wind blows from the direction of the site, the smell is so overpowering that she cannot work outside.
DATCP told WORT that usually a compost site would be placed on the property that the outbreak occurred. Because the farm sits on top of a high water table, however, a compost pile of that size would have affected the groundwater of the area. Instead, a site nearby that was owned by the farm was chosen to protect the groundwater.
DATCP says that they are constantly monitoring the compost project for any leakages or other disruptions that may endanger local residents and wildlife.
Supervisor Brattset says that she knows that something has to be done with the birds, but she is concerned that the birds are not being handled with enough care to ensure that other birds in the area do not also get infected.
“(Composting) is probably the most environmentally friendly way to do it if it’s done properly. I have concerns about how they are doing it, where these birds are being dumped into a pile where they are then raked out by guys who are thankfully wearing hazmat suits, but nonetheless being raked around and it can go right into the air and they tell us that this is airborne. It just seems to me that this is not what we expected before they started composting them and we thought they were just going to be composted. This is not the process that we expected to see out there,” Brattset says.
DATCP maintains that they have been in daily communication with neighbors and county and town officials. They say that around 14 trucks are currently hauling the birds from the farm to the compost site, and could not give me a timeline of when the project is expected to be completed. They tell WORT that anyone who is concerned that their bird may have contracted the Avian Flu can contact them on the Avian Influenza page on datcp.wi.gov.
Photo courtesy: Egor Myznik / UNSPLASH