EPA Lets Factory Farms Off the Hook, Drops Pollution Reporting Proposal
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has given up on requiring large-scale industrial livestock operations to submit critical water pollution information, but a new lawsuit may force them to do it anyway.
A coalition of non-profit animal welfare, community, food safety and environmental groups sued EPA on August 28th. The Humane Society of the United States, the Center for Food Safety, the Environmental Integrity Project, Food & Water Watch and the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement allege that EPA should not have decided to withdraw its proposed regulation in July 2012.
There’s a lot of basic but essential information that EPA needs, and doesn’t have, about a type of factory farm called a consolidated animal feeding operation (CAFO). According to the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO):
Since 2002, at least 68 government-sponsored or peer-reviewed studies have been completed that examined air and water quality issues associated with animal feeding operations and 15 have directly linked air and water pollutants from animal waste to specific health or environmental impacts. EPA has not yet assessed the extent to which these pollutants may be impairing human health and the environment because it lacks key data on the amount of pollutants that are being emitted from animal feeding operations.
To regulate them properly, EPA said in its original proposed rule that it needed to know CAFO sizes, precise locations, ownership, waste management procedures, the specific number and types of animals held, history of illegal discharges and whether they have a Clean Water Act (CWA) discharge permit.
Section 308 of the CWA authorizes EPA to collect information from the “owner or operator of any point source” to carry out the objectives of the Act, among other things. In many states, CAFOs already have to submit much of this same information. Surely they can give it to the EPA as well. Simple, yes?
Apparently not. EPA’s withdrawal of its proposed rule, expressed simply, means that EPA has essentially told CAFOs: “Never mind. Even though we really need this information to regulate the water pollution you are causing, we’ll cobble it together for ourselves. You don’t need to submit it to us.”
What is a CAFO?
CAFOs are industrial-scale facilities that raise livestock and poultry. EPA defines them as operations in which animals are confined for at least 45 days of the year in areas without grass or vegetation.
Hundreds or even thousands of animals are crammed together in very tight quarters intended to efficiently provide the largest output of meat, eggs or dairy from the smallest amount of space. Typically, an operation is considered a CAFO if it raises 1,000 or more beef cattle, 125,000 broiler chickens, or 2,500 pigs weighing at least 55 lbs.
The number of CAFOs in the U.S. increased by a whopping 230 percent between 1982 and 2002, from 3,600 to almost 12,000. Incredibly, CAFOs produce three times as much waste as we humans do. That’s the problem.
The Problem With All That Animal Waste
A CAFO is a perfect storm of animal overcrowding combined with too much manure and urine. Sometimes a CAFO is a barn or other building from which cow or pig waste must be washed into manure lagoons or other containers. Poultry CAFOs are typically “dry waste” systems, in which chicken waste is removed to storage or compost sites.
Other CAFOs are huge feedlots, where cow poop plops on the ground — lots and lots of it, all day long. One cow produces about as much waste as 18 humans. Although CAFOs do manage these waste streams, when it rains, much of the never ending supply of manure washes away into local rivers and streams.
CAFOs produce an enormous amount of animal waste containing pollutants that enter our nation’s waterways and threaten the health of wildlife, ecosystems and humans. Such pollutants include pathogens, pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics, excessive nutrients and gases.
How Did Industrialized Factory Farms Get EPA to Back Off?
No federal agency currently gathers the information EPA needs, says the GAO. According to a 2008 GAO report, data obtained from state agencies “are inconsistent and inaccurate and do not provide EPA with the reliable data it needs to identify and inspect permitted CAFOs nationwide.” EPA acknowledged this fact when it proposed this rule in 2011.
Yet, in withdrawing it, EPA now says it will rely instead on “a range of existing sources of information, other regulations, and other programs at the federal, state, and local level to gather basic information about CAFOs.”
Why should EPA have to work so hard to patch together this information? Why did the agency back off? Perhaps it was the aggressive way the factory farming industry opposed the requirement to submit this basic information. They cited increased risk of bioterrorism as a primary concern. Here’s a sample of what they had to say:
Beef: “[EPA] needs to redirect its focus to working with states and other partners to attain already publicly available information that would allow them to work toward their goal of improved water quality. This can be done in a way that does not put our food system at increased risk,” said National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) Deputy Environmental Counsel Ashley Lyon. NCBA also objected to EPA’s “attempt to regulate ground water as it has no authority under the CWA” and told EPA a CAFO “cannot be responsible for manure once it leaves the CAFO.”
Poultry: “Making this kind of information readily available to the public puts the safety of the food chain at an even higher risk for acts of bioterrorism, not to mention the concern for the safety and privacy of the thousands of family farmers who often live at the same location,” asserted John Starkey, president of the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association.
Pork: The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) says pork farmers already comply with federal regulations. According to NPPC spokesman Dave Warner, asserting that pork CAFOs pollute like big wastewater plants and other manufacturers do “is a blatant lie.” He insisted, “We are a zero-discharge industry and we comply with those federal regulations.”
It seems the American public, as represented by EPA, shouldn’t know precise information about factory farms because that information purportedly endangers industrialized livestock and poultry operations. It’s a handy argument. There’s also a degree of truth to it. There will always be risks to our food system.
However, the groups suing EPA believe the bigger concern — the far more devastating affront to health and safety — is the water pollution these operations cause.
“While power plants, waste treatment facilities and manufacturers have had to comply with the protective standards of the Clean Water Act, the factory farming industry has managed to evade any meaningful regulation,” said Hugh Espey, executive director at Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. “After over three decades, there is no rational reason for why EPA won’t enact the types of Clean Water Act approaches with factory farms that have worked well with all of our other polluting industries.”
Photo credit: Thinkstock