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Midwest Farmers Rush To Dispose Of Chickens Killed To Contain Avian Flu


Now another story about food safety - an outbreak of avian flu is sweeping across the Midwest at a frightening pace. It's ravaging chicken and turkey farms. Because there's no vaccine, both infected and healthy birds have to be killed to try to stop the virus, and that means figuring out how to dispose of millions of dead birds. Most of them are in Iowa, the state hit hardest by the outbreak. Peggy Lowe of member station KCUR reports.

PEGGY LOWE, BYLINE: Even as the tiny, green shoots of corn and soybeans are popping up in fields here, another product of Northwest Iowa is being destroyed. I'm outside the entrance to Rembrandt Farms, believed to be the site of the country's largest avian flu outbreak. Five-and-a-half-million birds will have to be killed just at this location. The big question is, then what?

LARRY OLDENKAMP: I've been in the landfill business probably 26 years, and I've never ever seen this kind of volume, and I hope I never do again.

LOWE: That's Larry Oldenkamp, director of the Northwest Iowa Area Solid Waste Agency. He's taking a small piece of the problem, about 1,500 tons of what is expected to be in the tens of thousands of tons. So far, the USDA says more than 38 million birds have to be killed because of the outbreak of H5 Avian Influenza. It spreads fast, is fatal for chicken and turkeys, but has a very low risk for people.

BILLY DUPLECHEIN: These are some tanks we're going to set in to dump chickens into.

LOWE: Up in a remote field at a landfill in Cherokee County, Billy Duplechein and his crew are preparing a site for a large incinerator. He's with Clean Harbors, the company hired by the federal government to dispose of the birds. They've scraped the landfill's yard clippings away, covered the field in gravel, and a 25-by-25-foot dirt square is carved out in the center, ready for a tall burner shaped a little like nearby silos. It will be fired up this week and run 24 hours a day until...

DUPLECHEIN: That's the million dollar question. We really don't know. It's going to just - it has too many factors to be able to answer that kind of question.

LOWE: I'm sitting on a gravel road back behind the barns of Sunrise Farms. I got chased away from the front gate where there are signs up saying it's a bio-secure area and people have to stay out. I saw men in yellow protective gear, head-to-toe protective gear, taking chickens out of the barns, wheeling them out in these large, orange crates, tossing them down chutes where they landed in big trucks backed up to those barns. Back here, it's an 80-acre plot where the birds are composted and buried, and it's where officials hope that the temperature gets up to 140 degrees to literally cook the virus to kill it.

DAWN CRONK: I had the window down, and all of a sudden, there's just that distinct dead animal smell. And it's not just one dead animal. It's like you - like you walked into a - I don't know how you would put it - like a decomposing lot. You know, it's just that strong.

LOWE: Dawn Cronk lives just a mile and a half south of Sunrise Farms and says she's not too worried about any contamination on her land. But landfills here and in two other states have turned down pleas from the farms and even Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack. He told Radio Iowa that fears of the birds harming the groundwater have no merit, and time is of the essence.


TOM VILSACK: We'll be working with the state to try to reassure people that there's not a risk here. But at some point in time, we've got to basically - got to get rid of these birds because otherwise, we're going to begin to have some other issues in terms of odor and flies and things of that nature.

LOWE: The virus has now spread to more than a dozen states. And on Morning Edition tomorrow, we'll examine just how bird flu landed and why it moved so quickly in the Midwest. Meanwhile, officials are hoping that it's Mother Nature that comes to the rescue. The bird flu virus doesn't live long in hot temperatures, so summer's warmth could help slow the dangerous outbreak. For NPR News, I'm Peggy Lowe.

BLOCK: That story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting project focusing on agriculture and food production issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peggy Lowe joined Harvest Public Media in 2011, returning to the Midwest after 22 years as a journalist in Denver and Southern California. Most recently she was at The Orange County Register, where she was a multimedia producer and writer. In Denver she worked for The Associated Press, The Denver Post and the late, great Rocky Mountain News. She was on the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of Columbine. Peggy was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan in 2008-09. She is from O'Neill, the Irish Capital of Nebraska, and now lives in Kansas City. Based at KCUR, Peggy is the analyst for The Harvest Network and often reports for Harvest Public Media.