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Smell that evidence

Following up on the story of the Thompsons.

I protested that vague open ended legislation that allows officials to use opinions rather than empirical evidence is a stepping stone to tyranny, and naturally people had questions about the details. Have the Thompsons been treated unfairly, are the complaints legitimate? Could we tell?

So let’s visit the empirical evidence

This is the record of complaints from the Agricultural College, the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC), and the smell tests conducted by the Department of Agriculture and Food WA (DAFWA).

Given all the variables and biases involved, we can’t say much in detail. Humor me. Here’s how I see it:

  1. Cows and complaints don’t correlate. Complaints doubled as the number of cows halved.
  2. The worst smells in town (when the wind is from the right direction) correlate with hot months, but also clearly with less cows.
  3. The Agricultural College says things are so bad that “enrollments are being affected” but no one there thought to complain until mid 2008, and then as cattle numbers fell, apparently people at the college became much more likely to complain, and 2009 was a bumper year for grievances, though cattle numbers were half of what they were back in happy-cheesy-2007. The Ag College complaints spike of Aug 2008 correlate with the lowest cattle numbers for the whole 2.5 year period.
  4. The Shire complaint log for 2006 records only 10 complaints for the entire year, yet stock levels were equivalent to those in 2009 where there were 20-30 “complaints” a month, and this is after the Thompsons implemented all the odour reducing measures that were suggested.

Narrogin Beef:  Odour Complaints and detections (left axis) and Cattle Stocking (right axis)

Looks like the way to reduce smells is to insist the Thompsons keep their stock numbers above 10000 cows because when the cow numbers drop the smells get worse :-).

Why on Earth would anyone stick so many cows near a town?

You might wonder if putting 10,000 cows five kilometers from a town was a bad idea from the start. I asked Matt Thompson what people did in other places. The answer was that some feedlots are so close to towns there they are practically in the town, and 10,000 cows would rate as a hobby. No Matt didn’t say that exactly, what he said was:

Stratford Feedlot in Texas has 80,000 head about 1.5 miles from town. Cactus Feedlot is virtually in town with 80,000 head. Hart Feedlot 40,000 head, 0.5 miles from town. Heritage Happy, TX 1.5 miles from town, 50,000 head, just to name a few…

Of course, if you Google with one eye you’ll find people who swear those towns smell bad, but there are just as many posts from people who say the opposite, who apparently love their home town and declare that most days you can’t smell a thing. Which is indeed what the detailed tests from Narrogin show. On a scale of 1- 6 (where six is disgusting) most entries were “zero”. Most days it was undetectable.

There are around 700,000 cattle in feedlots in Australia. Matt and Janet’s definitely qualifies as a smaller family run business.

The town wants the Thompsons to operate there

In 2002 when the Thompsons applied to get planning approval from the Shire,  26 submissions were received. If the piggery was so unpopular and unaromatic, surely the townsfolk would have stepped up to say “No thanks”.

(Of the 26 submissions) all but three … were in favour of the proposal. Two submissions, that were in opposition to the cattle feedlot, raised issues of concern about the possible impacts on nearby properties and the increase in heavy truck movements. The third submission asked Council to consider the retention of roadside vegetation.

The meeting was very positive with many people there supporting the development. (From the 2002 council Agenda)

Other conflicts of interest?

One complainant has also applied to have the local area rezoned so she can subdivide her property (Item 59, and to some extent Item 58). I’m sure her complaints are in no way influenced by her desire to profit from the land development that would become much easier if one or two of the local rural industries happened to collapse into bankruptcy. (See item 92 of the council agenda).

Exactly how many complaints was that?

Despite all the documentation its impossible to say how many people in the town are complaining. Janet T says she asked, but as far as she can tell there are only 13 substantiated complaints. Surely, if there were many different people complaining the DEC would add up the numbers and make a point of it?

It’s hard to believe the West Australian government would want to bankrupt a family, destroy 24 rural jobs, and  hurt all the businesses that supply the grain, the water, the trucks, and equipment, just because of, say, 13 people complaining about smells (which have been documentably reduced with the best practices available) and which don’t seem to correlate well to cattle stock levels in any case.

What about other feedlots — are they treated the same way?

Matt and Janet probably don’t want to draw any fire towards other feedlots, so they sidestep specifically mentioning them. But when I asked Janet about the $15,000 they’d had to spend on getting “Odour Assessment” she said that the DEC didn’t suggest anyone to do that assessment, so she had to search, and it ended up being a whole day of phone calls through the Yellow Pages and environmental assessors before finally someone even knew a guy who might be able to help. Which tells us that odor assessments in WA must be pretty rare.  So how serious is DEC in prosecuting feedlots in WA for odor complaints? I really don’t know, but I’d be interested to find out how many $15,000 odour assessments are required.

The bottom line

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are some smelly days around a feedlot occasionally, but everyone deals with some impositions. The rest of us in the city live with aircraft noise, traffic pollution, and the odd neighbor with big barking rottweillers. We expect them all to do what they can to make it as nice as possible, but we don’t ask to evict them, and we find some other solution than a campaign of white-anting their livelihood in a tortuous fashion. In the end, you would think people who were happy to live near a piggery shouldn’t be taken too seriously when they complain about smell of the newly-arrived cows?

UPDATE: Matt Thompson has replied in #35 #36

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