WHOLESALE destruction of millions of egg-laying chickens at Buckeye Egg Farm is not a pretty prospect. But then the environmental damage caused by mismanagement of the company's megafarm installations in northwest and central Ohio over the past two decades wasn't pretty either.
Closing of Buckeye Egg facilities, ordered by the Ohio Department of Agriculture to begin by Aug. 5, presents a massive problem for everyone concerned because it's an enormous business. The firm last year produced 2.6 billion eggs - 4 percent of the nation's supply.
If buyers cannot be found, and if the state Environmental Review Appeals Commission does not grant a delay, Buckeye Egg must clear out its remaining 90 barns in three counties starting next month and finish cleaning up waste at the sites by September, 2004.
There is no valid reason to allow Buckeye Egg to continue to operate. The company, which has been cited 87 times for environmental violations involving manure and flies, has repeatedly stalled state regulators, earning nine contempt charges and two court-ordered consent decrees.
Although much of this long-standing problem is the fault of the company, it is partially due to the state's inattention to environmental regulations going back to the 1980s.
It wasn't until 2000 that state law was changed to deal with the pollution problems of industrial-scale agriculture, shifting enforcement from the state Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Agriculture.
Since Buckeye Egg is the agriculture department's first major enforcement case, the jury is still out on whether an industry-friendly entity of state government can do an effective job.
One thing is certain: The state must not shrink from carrying out the Buckeye Egg closing in an expeditious manner. That includes supervising the slaughter and disposal of nearly 15 million chickens, if need be.
With all due respect to the Humane Society and other animal rights groups, the chickens' demise should be handled as humanely as possible, keeping in mind that gassing the birds en masse may be the only economically feasible procedure.
Anyone squeamish about this prospect should consider that it is hardly different from what takes place in the nation's animal slaughterhouses every day. It is a fact of modern food production on a scale sufficient to feed 281 million Americans.
Ironically, it is such “cheap food” policies that have been advanced to justify the transformation of agriculture from family operations to megafarms. What cannot be ignored, however, is the impact on people in rural areas of air and water pollution that rivals that of factories in urban settings.
In the case of Buckeye Egg, the damage to Ohio's environment is longstanding and severe. It must be cleaned up and - more important - state regulators must ensure that similar problems are not allowed to fester and reoccur.