Bulgaria's Pig Problems Lie Buried
At the beginning of August, bags with decomposed pig carcasses were found on the side of a hill a few kilometers away from the Bulgarian village of Gavrilovo. The compulsory slaughter of pigs, a state measure against the spread of African swine fever (ASF), had pushed locals to dispose of the remains of their backyard animals themselves – an unfair choice between saving their money or the environment.
Since the middle of July, approximately 130,000 pigs from Bulgarian industrial farms have been slaughtered. Meanwhile, the number of “backyard swine” destroyed by their owners in villages is indeterminate. Lack of incineration capacity has led to the burial of these tens of thousands of tons of infected meat in the ground.
Amid rising concerns about the skyrocketing prices of pork meat and the potential for the crisis to cost the Bulgarian economy over 1 billion lev ($566.96 million), many are worried that the chaotic – at times even fraudulent – response of the authorities could cause a secondary outbreak, along with an environmental catastrophe.
The rapid spread of ASF made headlines in the second half of July when the outbreak of the disease was confirmed in the breeding farms of Nikolovo and Brashlen, both located in northern Bulgaria. Hours after the positive samples were confirmed, the Bulgarian agency for food safety (BFSA) issued an order that all 60,000 pigs at the two farms should be culled over the next few days. It was unclear how this number of animals was to be slaughtered over such a short period, and where their carcasses were to be contained.
BFSA soon came out with a statement that burial was the most appropriate method of disposal because incinerators would take too long to process the contaminated biological mass.
“[The incinerators] cannot be used for the burial of the pigs from the big farms because the whole process will take around a month,” declared BFSA director Damyan Iliev. “By then, the infected animals will start rotting.”
The choice of burial over incineration was not motivated by science but by the reality that the three mobile incinerators that currently work under contract with the state lack the capacity to react in these crisis conditions.
In 2017, BFSA permitted the two biggest incinerators in Bulgaria to close and has since then spent approximately 30 million lev ($17 million) on the incineration of a record quantity of biological mass by three privately owned mobile installations, a report by well-known Bulgarian investigative journalist Genka Shikerova revealed in August. While the investment is many times the capacity of these three incinerators, there is no proof how much, if any, biological mass was processed by the installations over the period since March 2018, when the deal between BFSA and the owners of the mobile installations was finalized.
The Bulgarian Special Prosecutor’s Office has already begun an investigation into alleged fraud by BFSA.
The lack of regulated disposal pits in the industrial farms further complicates the government's ability to mount an adequate response. In the farm near Brashlen, for example, a pit existed but was not ecologically tested. Following the outbreak at the farm, the sanitary services had to look for another place to bury approximately 40,000 pigs.
The animals from Brashlen were eventually buried in a trench near the village of Slivo Pole, a few meters away from a grain production base and a poultry farm.
According to the Minister of Agriculture Desislava Taneva, the burial site was approved by state ecological services, and the burial of the animals thus poses no danger to the environment. On-site footage of the burial, however, showed that some of the animals were buried alive and requirements for safety clothing and equipment were not met. In addition, the trench had no impermeable liner to prevent the leakage of the decomposed masses into the soil and the water table.
Another trench for the burial of infected carcasses was excavated on terrain near Ryahovo, known for its aggregation of underground water.
Not in My Backyard?
Far more complex is the situation with the backyard owners within the declared 20-kilometer (nearly 12.4-mile) sanitary zones around ASF-positive farms that, at the end of July, were obliged to slaughter their pigs as a prevention measure. Refusal to do so would cost the owners between 200 and 1,000 lev.
The short deadlines and severe sanctions soon sparked outrage among pig owners. Residents of villages near Sofia, Sliven, and Pazardzhik blocked several roads, demanding that the culling order be canceled until a proper examination of the animals could be conducted.
Although Prime Minister Boyko Borissov soon guaranteed a 300 lev grant for the disinfection of every backyard where the culling had been performed, and an extension of the deadline, the demands of the protestors were ultimately denied.
Following the expiry of the deadline, BFSA sanitary services carried out a forcible slaughter of hundreds of backyard pigs in over 70 Bulgarian villages and towns. The residents are worried that sanitary requirements were not followed, and the disease could still spread. On 20 July, after BFSA services killed all the pigs in a village near Burgas, some of the agents’ clothes and gloves were found discarded in bushes near the village.
The European Commission for Health and Food Safety has agreed to grant Bulgaria 2.9 million lev to battle the outbreak of the disease. Whether owners of backyard pigs will receive any compensation remains unclear.
No Knockout in Round One
The first case of ASF infection in Bulgaria was registered on 31 August 2018, allegedly transmitted by wild boar from Romania, which recorded more than 300 ASF-positive cases in 2018. In response, Bulgaria’s Ministry of Agriculture soon introduced a strategic action plan, which included visits to all farms and backyards, sampling for laboratory diagnosis of domestic swine and wild boar, as well as mandatory registration of all domestically reared pigs.
Yet even now, the extent to which those measures were executed remains unclear. The only solid security measure taken by the state was the construction of a 133-kilometer wire fence along Bulgaria's land border with Romania, aimed at deterring wild boar from entering. Many have questioned the usefulness of this fence, given that wild boar can swim across the Danube.
In early August, Deputy Agriculture Minister Yanko Ivanov admitted that the government had failed to take adequate measures against the spread of the disease.
“What we failed to do was reduce the population of wild boar, which, unfortunately, has a fairly dense concentration in the areas with industrial farms,” Ivanov said.
The extermination of wild boar populations proved to be an effective measure against the disease in the Czech Republic, which in March became the first country in Europe to fully eradicate ASF on its territory.
Meanwhile, as the government in Sofia continues its attempts to shift blame and quiet Bulgarians indignant about the official response to the crisis, the number of ASF outbreaks is still rising. The latest cases were registered in southwestern Bulgaria, indicating that the disease has now spread over the entire country.
The burial of thousands of animals in trenches and pits also continues, despite the danger that the ASF virus – which is extremely resistant in an outdoor environment and can survive in dead tissue – could potentially leach into the soil or into water sources. Animals or humans that use the same water sources could transfer the disease even further.
From an environmental perspective, composting may be a viable solution because it provides quick removal of the carcasses and does not produce undesirable by-products, unlike the incineration process. Yet it requires strict management of the burial sites, including leachate management and aeration maintenance, as well as the final disposal of compost.
Management, in particular, is the weak point of Bulgarian authorities, say critics. Considering the location of the burial sites, the negligence of the sanitary services, and the lack of any security measures on the majority of private backyard farms in Bulgaria, the possibility of a second wave of the epidemic does not seem unlikely.
The sinister smell of rotten carcasses near the village of Gavrilovo might be only the beginning.
This article originally appeared on tol.org and was produced by Milka Stoycheva
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