Anaerobic lagoon

Anaerobic lagoon

Anaerobic Lagoon or Manure Lagoon is a man made outdoor earthen basin filled with excrement. Lagoons are part of a system designed to manage and treat waste created by Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO). Anaerobic lagoons are created from a manure slurry which is washed out from underneath the animal pens and then piped into the lagoon. Sometimes the slurry is placed in an intermediary holding tank under or next to the barns before it is deposited in a lagoon. Once in the lagoon, the manure settles into two layers: the solid or sludge layer and the liquid layer. The manure then undergoes the process of anaerobic respiration, whereby the volatile organic compounds are converted into carbon dioxide and methane.

Anaerobic Lagoons have been shown to harbor and emit substances which can cause adverse environmental and health affects. These substances are emitted through two main pathways: gas emissions and lagoon overflow. Gas emissions are continuous (though the amount may vary based on the season) and are a product of the manure slurry itself. The most prevalent toxic gasses emitted by the lagoon are: Ammonia, Hydrogen Sulfide, Methane, and Carbon Dioxide. Lagoon overflow is caused by faulty lagoons or an increase in rain or wind. These overflows release harmful substances into the surrounding land and water such as: Antibiotics, Estrogens, Bacteria, pesticides, heavy metals, and protozoa.

In response to environmental and health concerns, the EPA has tightened regulation of the CAFO under the Clean Water Act (CWA). Some states have imposed their own regulation as well. Due to repeated overflows and resultant health concerns North Carolina banned the construction of new anaerobic lagoons in 1999. There has also been a significant push for the research, development and implementation of Environmentally Sound Technologies (ESTs).



Beginning in the 1950s with poultry, and then later in the 1970s and 1980s with cattle and swine, the United States has turned to the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation as a way to more efficiently produce large quantities of meat.[1] This switch has benefited the United States consumer by increasing the amount of meat that can be grown, and therefore decreasing the price of meat.[2] However, the increase in livestock has generated an increase in manure. In 2006 the United states produced 133 million tons of manure per year.[1] Unlike manure produced in a conventional farm, CAFO manure cannot all be used as direct fertilizer on agricultural land due to the poor quality of the manure. Moreover CAFOs produce a high volume of manure. A feeding operation with 800,000 pigs could produce over 1.6 million tons of waste a year.[3] The high quantity of manure produced by a CAFO must be dealt with in some way, as improper manure management can result in water, air and soil damage.[4] As a result, manure collection and disposal has become an increasing problem.[5]

In order to manage their waste, CAFOs have developed Agricultural wastewater treatment plans. To save on manual labor, many CAFOs handle manure waste as a liquid.[6] In this system the animals are kept in pens with grated floors so the waste and spray water can be drained from underfloor gutters and piped to storage tanks or anaerobic lagoons.[4] Once at a lagoon, the purpose is to treat the waste and make it suitable for spreading on agricultural fields.[6] There are 3 main types of lagoon: anaerobic, which is inhibited by oxygen, aerobic, which requires oxygen, and facultative, which is maintained with or without oxygen.[6] Aerobic lagoons provide a higher degree of treatment with less odor production, though they require a significant amount of space and maintenance. Because of this demand, almost all livestock lagoons are anaerobic lagoons.[6]



A photo of the anaerobic treatment lagoon at the Cal Poly Dairy taken in 2003.

Anaerobic lagoons are earthen basins with a usual depth of 8 feet, though greater depths are more beneficial to digestion as they minimize oxygen diffusion from the surface. To prevent any contaminants from leaking into the ground water, lagoons are lined with clay or artificial liner.[7] Anaerobic lagoons are neither heated, aerated, nor mixed. Anaerobic lagoons are most effective in warmer temperatures and anaerobic bacteria are uneffective below 15°C.[8] Lagoons must be separated from other structures by a certain distance to prevent contamination. States regulate this separation distance.[9] The overall size of the lagoon is determined by addition of 4 components: the minimum design volume, the volume of manure storage between periods of disposal, the dilution volume, and the volume of sludge accumulation between periods of sludge removal.[9]


The lagoon is divided into two distinct layers: the sludge layer and the liquid layer. The sludge layer is a more solid layer formed by the stratification of sediments from the manure.[8] After a while, this solid layer accumulates and eventually needs to be cleaned out.[7] The liquid level is composed of grease, scum, and other particulates [7] The liquid level CAFO wastewater enters at the bottom of the lagoon so that it can mix with the active microbial mass in the sludge layer. These anaerobic conditions are uniform throughout the lagoon, except in a small surface level.[8] Sometimes aeration is applied to this level to dampen the odors emitted by the lagoons. If surface aeration is not applied, a crust that will form which will trap heat and odors.[8] Anaerobic lagoons should retain and treat waste water from 20 to 150 days.[7] Lagoons should be followed by aerobic or facultative lagoons to provide further required treatment.[8] The liquid layer is periodically drained and used for fertilizer. In some instances a cover can be provided to trap methane, which is used for energy.[8] Anaerobic Lagoons work through a process called anaerobic digestion.[4] Decomposition of the orgainic mater begins shortly after the animals void, and lagoons become anaerobic due to the high oxygen demand of the feces.[4] Anaerobic microorganisms convert organic compounds into carbon dioxide and methane through acid formation and methane production.[8]

Advantages of Construction

  • Manure can be easily manipulated with water using flushing systems, sewer lines, pumps and irrigation systems[6]
  • Stabilization of the waste through digestion minimizes odor when manure is finally used as fertilizer[6]
  • Manure is able to be stored long-term at a low cost [6]

Disadvantages of Construction

  • Requires relatively large area of land [8]
  • Produces strong undesirable odors especially during spring and fall [6]
  • Take a fairly long time for organic stabilization because of the slow rate of sludge digestion and slow growth rate of methane formers
  • Manure used as fertilizer has low nutrient availability [6]
  • Waste water seepage may occur if the tanks break or are improperly constructed[8]
  • Weather and other environmental elements can strongly effect the safety and efficacy of anaerobic lagoons [8]

Environmental and Health Impacts

Toxic Fumes

The decomposition of manure in lagoons by anaerobic bacteria produces toxic airborne compounds which can be harmful to human health and the environment. A study performed in North Carolina showed people living nearby a 6,000-head hog CAFO reported increased rates of headaches, runny nose, sore throat, excessive coughing, diarrhea, and burning eyes compared to rural residents living far from livestock operations .[10] Additionally, rates of athsma in children living near a CAFO are also consistently elevated.[3] The process of anaerobic digestion has been shown to release over 400 volatile compounds from lagoons.[11] The most prevalent of these are: ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, and carbon dioxide.[3][4][10]


In the united states 80% of ammonia emissions come from livestock production.[4] The urea (a component of urine) stored in the lagoon contains ammonium, which is a liquid nitrogen compound. Through Ammonia Volatization, the a lagoon can vaporize up to 80% of its nitrogen [11] through the reaction: NH4+-N -> NH3 + H+. As pH or temperature increases, so does the amount of Volatized Ammonia.[12] Once ammonia has been volatilized it can travel as far as 300 miles [11] at closer ranges it is a respitory irritant.[4] Acidification and eutrophication of the ecosystem surrounding the Lagoons could be caused by prolonged exposure to volatilized ammonia.[13] This volatilized ammonia has been implicated in widespread ecological damage in Europe, and is becoming a growing concern for the united states.[12] OSHA recommendations for amonnia in barns is 25ppm, whereas in Europe it is 10ppm.[4]

Hydrogen Sulfide

With averages greater than 30 ppb lagoons have high concentration of the toxic gas hydrogen sulfide. A study by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has found that concentrations of Hydrogen sulfide near lagoons have exceeded the state standard, even as far away as 4.9 miles.[11] Hydrogen Sulfide is recognizable for its unpleasant rotten egg odor. Exposure to the gas can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, diarrhea, hoarseness, sore throat, cough, chest tightness, nasal congestion, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, stress, mood alterations, sudden fatigue, headaches, nausea, sudden loss of consciousness, comas, seizures, and death.[11] Because Hydrogen sulfide is heavier than air, it tends to linger around lagoons even after ventilation.[14] Levels of hydrogen sulfide are at their highest after agitation and during manure removal.[4]


Methane is an orderless, tasteless, colorless gas which is fatal at high levels (though these levels are not usually seen at lagoons). Lagoons produce about 2 300 000 mt per year, with around 40% of this number coming from swine lagoons.[15] Methane is combustible at high temperatures and explosions and fires are a real threat at, or near, lagoons.[14] Additionally methane is a potent green house gas. The EPA has estimated that 13% all the methane emissions came from livestock manure in 1998, and this number has grown in recent years.[11] Recently there has been interest technology which would capture methane produced from lagoons and sell it as energy.[16]

Carbon Dioxide

Carbon Dioxide is a main product of anaerobic respiration within the lagoon.[14] Though it is not toxic in itself, health effects include: respiratory problems, eye irritation, and headaches.[11] Carbon Dioxide is also considered a green house gas.

Water Soluble Contaminants

Contaminants that are water soluable can escape from Anaerobic Lagoons and enter the environment through leakage from badly constructed or poorly maintained manure lagoons, or during excess rain or high winds resulting in an overflow of lagoons.[1] These leaks and overflows can contaminate surrounding surface and ground water with some hazardous materials which are contained in the lagoon.[1] The most serious of these contaminants are Pathogens, Antibiotics, heavy metals, and hormones.


There are over 150 pathogens in manure lagoons that have been found to impact human health.[3] Healthy individuals who come into contact with pathogens usually recover promptly. However, those who have a weakened immune system, such as cancer patients and young children, have an increased risk for a more severe illness or even death.[3] About 20% of the American population categorized in this risk group [3] Some of the more notable pathogens are:

E. Coli
E. Coli is found in the intestines and feces of both animal and humans, is extremely virulent. One particular strain Escherichia coli O157:H7 is found specifically in the lumen of cattle raised in CAFOs. Because cattle are fed corn in CAFOs instead of grass this changes the pH of the lumen so that it is more hospitable to E. Coli. Grain fed cattle have 80% more of this strain of E. Coli than traditional grass fed cattle. This reduction can also be achieved by switching an animal to grass only a few days prior to slaughter.[17]
Cryptosporidium is a parasite which causes diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and fever. It is particularly problematic because it is resistant to most lagoon treatment regimens[3] In study performed in Canada, thirty-seven percent of swine liquid manure samples contained Cryptosporidium.[18]
Some other common pathogens (and their symptoms)[3]
  • Bacillus anthracis, otherwise known as Anthrax (skin sores, headache, fever, chills, nausea, vomiting)
  • Leptospira pomona (abdominal pain, muscle pain, vomiting, fever)
  • Listeria monocytogenes (fever, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea)
  • Salmonella (abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, chills, fever, headache)
  • Clostirdum tetani (violent muscle spasms, lockjaw, difficulty breathing)
  • Histoplasma capsulatum (fever, chills, muscle ache, cough rash, joint pain and stiffness)
  • Microsporum and Trichophyton Ringworm (itching, rash)
  • Giardia lamblia (abdominal pain, abdominal gas, nausea, vomiting, fever)
  • Cryptosporidium (diarrhea, dehydration, weakness, abdominal cramping)
  • Pfiesteria piscicida (neurological damage) [11]


Antibiotics are fed to livestock to prevent disease and to increase weight and development, so that there is a shortened time from birth to slaughter. However, because these antibiotics are administered at sub-therapeutic levels, bacteria can build up resistance to the drugs. These antibiotic resistant bacteria are then excreted and transferred to the lagoons where they can infect humans and other animals.[11]

Each year 24.6 million pounds of antimicrobials are administered to livestock for non-therapeutic purposes.[19] Seventy percent of all antibiotics and related drugs are given to animals as feed additives.[3] Nearly half of the antibiotics used are nearly identical to ones given to humans. There is strong evidence that the use of antibiotics in animal feed is contributing to an increase in antibiotic-resistant microbes and causing antibiotics to be less effective for humans.[3] Due concern over antibiotic-resistant bacteria the American Medical Association passed a resolution stating their opposition to the use of sub-therapeutic levels of anti-microbials in livestock.[11]


Growth hormones such as rBST are administered to increase development rate and muscle mass for the livestock. Only a fraction of these hormones are actually absorbed by the animal. The rest are excreted and wind up in lagoons. Studies show that these hormones, if they are emitted into the surface water, can alter fertility and reproductive habits of aquatic animals.[3]

A recent study found that several lagoons and monitoring wells from two facilities (a nursery and a farrowing sow operation) contained high levels of all 3 types of estrogen. For the nursery, lagoon effluent concentrations ranged from 390 to 620 ng/L for estrone, 180 to 220 ng/L for estriol, and 40 to 50 ng/L for estradiol. For the farrowing sow operation, digester and primary lagoon effluent concentrations ranged from 9,600 to 24,900 ng/L for estrone, 5,000 to 10,400 ng/L for estriol, and 2,200 to 3,000 ng/L for estradiol. Ethynylestradiol was not detected in any of the lagoon or ground water samples. Natural estrogen concentrations in ground water samples were generally less than 0.4 ng/L, although a few wells at the nursery operation showed quantifiable but low levels."[20]

Heavy Metals

Manure contains trace elements of many heavy metals such as arsenic, copper, selenium, zinc, cadmium, molybdenum, nickel, lead, iron, manganese, aluminum, and boron. Sometimes these metals given to animals as growth stimulants, some are introduced through pesticides used to rid livestock of insects, and some my pass through the animals as undigested food.[11] Trace elements of these metals and salts from animal manure present risks to human health and ecosystems.[11]


For further information on lagoon regulation, see Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation

Anaerobic Lagoons are built as part of an waste water operation system. As such, compliance and permitting are handled as an extension of that operation. Therefore, manure lagoons are regulated on the state and national level through the CAFO which operates them. In recent years, because of the environmental and health effects associated with anaerobic lagoons, the EPA has increased regulation of CAFOs with a specific eye towards lagoons.[21] Additionally, on a state level, due to the same safety concerns North Carolina banned the construction of new anaerobic lagoons in 1999 and upheld that ban in 2007.[22][23]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Burkholder, JoAnn. "Impacts of Waste from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations on Water Quality". Environmental Health Perspectives. Retrieved 2 November 2011. 
  2. ^ Bittman, Mark. "Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler". NY Times. Retrieved 2 November 2011. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Hribar, Carrie. "Understanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and Their Impact on Communities". CDC. Retrieved 1 November 2011. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i Tishmack, Jody. "Meeting the Challenges of Swine Manure Management". Biocycle. Retrieved 1 November 2011. 
  5. ^ "Pollution from Giant Livestock Farms Threatens Public Health". NRDC. Retrieved 2 November 2011. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Pfost, Donald. "Anaerobic Lagoons for Storage/Treatment of Livestock Manure". University Of Mossouri. Retrieved 2 November 2011. 
  7. ^ a b c d "Design, Operation and Regulation of Lagoons in Maine". Lagoon systems in Maine. Retrieved 2 November 2011. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Wastewater Technology Fact Sheet". EPA. Retrieved 2 November 2011. 
  9. ^ a b "Design and Management of Anaerobic Lagoons in Iowa for Animal Manure Storage and Treatment". Iowa State University Extension. Retrieved 2 November 2011. 
  10. ^ a b SCHRUM, CHRISTINE. "Hog Confinement Health Risks". The Iowa Source. Retrieved 19 October 2011. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Marks, Robbin. "Cesspools of Shame". NRDC. Retrieved 2 November 2011. 
  12. ^ a b Meisinger, J. J.. "Ammonia Volitalization from Dairy and Poultry Manure". NREAS. Retrieved 2 November 2011. 
  13. ^ "Environmental Impact of Animal Waste: Disposal of Animal Waste in Large-Scale Swine Production Examined". Science Daily. Retrieved 2 November 2011. 
  14. ^ a b c "MANURE GAS DANGERS". Farm Safety Association. Retrieved 2 November 2011. 
  15. ^ Harper, L.A.. "Methane emissions from an anaerobic swine lagoon". Journal of Atmospheric Environment. Retrieved 2 November 2011. 
  16. ^ Vanotti. "Greenhouse Gas Emission Reductions and Carbon Credits from Implementation of Aerobic Manure Treatment Systems in Swine Farms". US Department of Agriculture. Retrieved 2 November 2011. 
  17. ^ Pollan, Michael (2006). Omnivores Dilemma. New York: Penguin. 
  18. ^ Fleming, Ron. "Cryptosporidium in Livestock, Manure Storages, and Surface Waters in Ontario". Ontario Federation of Agriculture. Retrieved 3 November 2011. 
  19. ^ "Hogging It!: Estimates of Antimicrobial Abuse in Livestock". Union of Concerned Scientists. Retrieved 3 November 2011. 
  20. ^ "Analysis of Swine Lagoons & Ground Water for Environmental Estrogens". Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved 19 October 2011. 
  21. ^ "CAFO Rule History". Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved 19 October 2011. 
  22. ^ "North Carolina Finalizes Swine Lagoon Ban". National Hog Farmer. Retrieved 26 October 2011. 
  23. ^ "Hog Farming Overview". North Carolina in the Global Economy. Retrieved 2 November 2011. 

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