Where’s the EPA When Our Water Is Full of It?

NOTE: This is a guest post from Karen Steuer, director of the Reforming Industrial Animal Agriculture campaign at the Pew Environment Group.

In previous posts, we have discussed how concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) can cause some serious water pollution in our nation’s largest estuary, the Chesapeake Bay. But the states surrounding the bay are not alone in facing this issue. In Illinois, for example, water quality problems have caused real concern about that state’s regulation of the rapidly growing hog industry.

Illinois is the fourth-largest hog-producing state in the country, raising about 4.5 million hogs annually. By 2008, 96 percent of the lakes assessed by the state were listed as “impaired” — and agriculture was cited as the primary cause.

Illinois law allows massive hog production facilities within a quarter-mile of homes and a half-mile of towns, and residents are worried about their health and property values. Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water, a coalition of family farmers and community groups, reports that some citizens have spent their life savings battling factory farms. Responding to these concerns, the coalition petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2008 to transfer the authority to manage pollutant discharges from the state to the EPA, saying that Illinois had failed to “keep stride with rapid changes in Illinois’ livestock industry.”

Two years later, the EPA told Illinois to clean up its program and recommended a comprehensive survey of livestock facilities. At the time, regional EPA officials noted that neither they nor the state knew the locations of the majority of the animal feeding operations in Illinois. The agencies have since agreed on a plan to implement the Clean Water Act and to locate and count CAFOs. But if the authorities responsible for protecting state waters don’t know the locations of CAFOs that may be discharging manure into local waterways, water quality is at risk.

Locating farms that may contain more than 10,000 hogs or 38,000 chickens shouldn’t be that difficult. Alabama does it with a publicly accessible list that includes the number of animals and the nearest surface water likely to be affected. Missouri and Ohio provide interactive maps with CAFO locations. Clearly, maintaining this information for regulatory purposes can and should be done.

But even the states with data have been slow to share the information with the EPA. Action at the federal level also remains elusive, even though in 2008 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported to Congress that the EPA needed more information and “a clearly defined strategy to protect air and water quality” from CAFOs. GAO also noted that no federal agency collects consistent, reliable data on CAFOs and strongly recommended that the EPA create such a database.

Unfortunately, earlier this year, under stiff pressure from the animal agriculture industry, the EPA withdrew a proposal that would have established the GAO-recommended database. Opponents contended that the states already collected the necessary information, which was available to the EPA if the agency just worked with the states to gather it all into one database.

The Pew Environment Group has found that, although some states maintain readily accessible databases, others keep the information in arcane locations with non-user friendly formats that are not consistent from state to state. A standardized approach is clearly needed to protect public health and the environment, as mandated by the Clean Water Act 40 years ago.

The EPA should have held its ground on this issue. Four years after the Government Accountability Office raised concerns, the agency still doesn’t know the location of many of the country’s CAFOs, let alone how much manure they generate or how the waste is handled. The absence of this information potentially represents a major threat to public health in rural communities where sources of water may be polluted or unsafe. Both the federal government and the states need to move forward on this issue.


Related Stories:

The Chesapeake’s Poop Problem

Clean Water Act: Still Under Attack After 40 Years

Does Your Drinking Water Have Chicken Manure In It?



Duane B.
.4 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

shell bell
Michelle B5 years ago

Extremely disturbing!

Ashley Meyers
Ashley Meyers5 years ago

Interesting article, I did not know that about my home state. Inspired me to do some more research. Thank you!

natalie n.
natalie n5 years ago

where is the pressure and accountability here? they seem so indifferent its actually scary, goodness knows what else is sliding behind their backs.

Tammy B.
Tammy B.5 years ago

Look at it this way the EPA is a Goverment run business, the goverment then owns it. The goverment allows fracking which is so deadly to anyone living anywhere near, their air land even water supply, the Goverment allows these things not caring if we live and hopes we die! I am sure. At 26 I was giving birth to my 4th child, half of my conceptions had already died, at 23 I had a baby with Down's Syndrome, Who died at 8 months and 3 weeks old following open-heart surgery.I called the EPA in Indianapolis Indiana to come check the air,water and land on which I lived,especially since where I then llived I had grown up most my life and had heard folks talk about PCBs. A man named Rudi came out from the EPA in Indi he did test all the elements where I then lived. And you know what happened next? He dissapeared!He either quit or was fired or ? Who knows, I couldn't find him anywhere! I never got the results. Think of it at 26 half of my conceptions had died. Those statistics are scarry.

Grace Adams
Grace Adams5 years ago

Money answers all things. (John 10:9?) If we get HR6275 Clean Energy Victory Bonds, maybe some of that money can be used by the EPA to subsidize a shot-gun wedding between some coal mine owners and some CAFO owners to work together on a joint venture to capture and sell as natural gas the methane generated by the manure. Then use the remaining nitrogen and phosphorous compounds to fertilize some algae; use one of those mini oil refinery things featured by Discover magazine in 2004 or 2004 to make charcoal of the algae; use half of the charcoal as bio-char mixed in the root-zone of a farm field to help make more efficient use of irrigation water; use all of the nitrogen and phosphorous compounds as fertilizer in farm fields; use the other half of the charcoal instead of coal to generate electricity; and the EPA buy the displaced coal reserves to make up to the coal mine owners for displacing it.

Cindy B.
Cindy B5 years ago

CAFO's -- ESPECIALLY hog farms -- are disgusting, despicable and dangerous to earth and people on every single level I can think of. I love pigs (but not to eat!). And I would really, really hate to live in Illinois.

Monica D.
Monica D5 years ago

The CAFOs should probably all be closed - better for our water, for people, animals and the planet.

Desiree Ponton
Desiree P5 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Julie W.
Jules W5 years ago

Thanks for sharing this article