When the European Union has brought Spain to justice for nitrate contamination and the Minister of Consumption, Alberto Garzón, has opened the debate on the macro-farms, a sentence issued in November by the Superior Court of Justice of Galicia comes to light (TSXG) that strongly questions the policy carried out by the Xunta regarding intensive livestock. The second section of the Court’s Contentious-Administrative Chamber annuls the environmental impact assessment with which the Department of the Environment gave the green light in 2019 for a farm “within the Coren group” —one of the largest chicken producers , eggs and derivatives of pigs in Spain— doubled its breeding capacity in an environment supposedly protected by various environmental figures and close to the neighborhood.
It was precisely a directly harmed family that, upon not obtaining a response from the Galician Government to their allegations regarding the project (despite the fact that their farm is adjacent), resorted to legal proceedings to fight against Goliath. The regional authorization had made it possible to double the capacity of a company based in the Ourense municipality of Rairiz de Veiga, supplier of Coren, from 22,932 chickens to 47,970. This amount is renewed half a dozen times a year (six breeding cycles) and in each year, according to the court ruling, there are 287,820 birds dispatched from a single company, among the hundreds of them that dot this area of Galicia.
The news shakes the region of A Limia, about which scientific entities and environmental groups have been issuing alerts for many years due to the tension of the interested sector and the passivity of the authorities. The macro-farms that raise the animals for Coren are concentrated in several municipalities, and at the same time this area in the south of Ourense is one of the largest extensions of land planted with potatoes in Spain. Almost a decade ago there were already more than 350 pig and chicken breeding facilities, but there are also cow and rabbit facilities.
Every year serious episodes of contamination by cyanobacteria are repeated in this landscape in the reservoirs where the waters of the Limia River, which crosses the border with Portugal, and its tributaries end up. Several studies point to eutrophication due to excess nitrates as a possible cause. The basin drags, and supposedly not always digests, the mountains of excrement with which, as environmentalists have photographed on numerous occasions, the farmland is fertilized.
The TSXG endorses all the reasons for the appeal filed by the neighbors’ lawyer after the Galician Administration did not take into account in the processing neither the family nor the Galician Society of Natural History, which made its corresponding allegations based on studies independent scientists. According to the magistrates, the Xunta department in charge of overseeing the environment did not evaluate the impact on the waters, nor on the bird colonies that inhabit the landscape protected by the Red Natura. Nor was he concerned about the people around him, who see their “right to health” violated, to “enjoy a suitable environment” and even to the “inviolability of the home” due to the pestilential emissions of “ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide and methane. For not looking, according to the judges, the Xunta did not even look at the runaway situation as a whole: the contamination and the cumulative effects of the waste from so much macro-farming as has been authorized for years.
The poultry fattening company that now sees the impact statement annulled is Cavirsa Freire, SC, “integrated/linked within the Coren group”, from which it receives “chicks from the incubation rooms” six times a year. On this farm, as on others in the area, the animals are fattened “in closed buildings with dynamic ventilation”, describes the court ruling, until they reach the desired weight in about 50 days: two and a half kilos. According to the impact report and reproduced in its text by the Superior Court, “the manure” generated, which is stored for six months in a deposit, “will be valued in agricultural plots.”
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Although chicken excrement “is a natural fertilizer with good results”, admits the sentence, “excessive use of this concentrated manure in a certain area may be contributing to the contamination of groundwater by nitrate leaching”. Within the livestock farm, by doubling the number of heads, the court recognizes that “the inconvenience is doubled” and the raft where the excrement is collected (540 cubic meters every six months).
The amount of manure that the A Limia farms can generate is unknown, but the room believes that the Xunta should scientifically “investigate” its consequences before the damage is “irreversible”. On the sum effect of such a number of farms in the same environment, the resolution, to which EL PAÍS has had access, criticizes the lack of perspective of the political leaders of the Government of Alberto Núñez Feijóo and the absence of “a methodology to prevent the impact” when it comes to spreading chicken manure on cultivated land. The Ministry cannot assess in an “individualized” way the environmental consequences of a ship “disregarding the rest” of existing facilities, because they are “cumulative impacts”, the judges recall.
“Aberrant” levels of nitrate in wells
The project is “within the scope” of the Natura 2000 Network, alerts the court, and has several figures (Special Protection Area for Birds, Site of Community Interest, UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 2005) of supposed armor environmental. There inhabits fauna listed in the Spanish and Galician catalogs of endangered species and the area is integrated into the plan for the recovery of the tortoise or European pond turtle, Emys orbicularis.
The Natural History Society —whose president, CSIC soil scientist Serafín González, testified as a witness and provided studies to the magistrates— has long called for “a moratorium on all applications for the installation or expansion of farms in A Limia. No more authorizations should be given, defends the environmental group made up of scientists, “until the synergistic and cumulative effects are evaluated” and stabled livestock is not “ordered from an environmental point of view” in that intensely exploited river basin.
Among the scientific reports on the contamination in A Limia brandished by the magistrates is the one prepared on well water and natural sources by the Department of Analytical Chemistry of the University of Vigo in 2020. The scholars describe some of the levels detected and explain that nitrates are present in “very high values” in more than half of the samples in wells. In some of the samples, fluorides, nitrites, aluminum, arsenic, lead, manganese and mercury also “exceeded the permitted limit”. “It follows that this contamination of the aquifer can be attributed to the leaching of fertilizers and excess livestock waste, due to poor fertilization practices, the high permeability of the substrate and the low depth of the water table,” the team points out. And he proposes to act immediately and look for “real” alternatives to the current “models of intensive agriculture and livestock”. Others, they conclude, “are more respectful of the environment and society.”