EPA delays again on CAFOs: The continuing lack of regulation over one of America’s most dangerous industries

EPA delays again on CAFOs: The continuing lack of regulation over one of America’s most dangerous industries

By Jessica Culpepper, Food Safety & Health Attorney

Advocates looked for the long-awaited release of a National Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation Rule this week — to no avail. As part of a settlement agreement in Fowler v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a case filed against the EPA to compel the agency to reduce nutrients and sediment pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, EPA had agreed to propose new rules that would require more CAFOs to obtain and follow permits under the federal Clean Water Act. EPA has broken its promise, delaying meaningful regulation until at least 2018.

The agency’s inaction poses an immediate threat to public health and safety. Animal feeding operations generate millions of tons of waste every year in the US — three times as much waste as people do nationwide. However, whereas human sewage is processed in treatment facilities, animal sewage is allowed to be dumped onto fields or in pits, left to run off into waterways or filter into aquifers. Permits are critical to reducing pollution from this industry, but EPA has simply punted on its promise to finally take action. 

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Rather than implementing a National CAFO rule or even a Chesapeake Bay CAFO Rule, EPA has announced that it will instead perform a piecemeal assessment of each Bay Watershed jurisdiction’s CAFO program. While the EPA is performing this lengthy “assessment,” pollution will continue unabated, further harming the environment and the communities of people who are forced to endure polluted well water, loss of local water sources, ruined recreational areas, and lower property values.

This is not the first time EPA has backtracked on a promise to finally provide some meaningful regulation over this industry. In May 2010, EPA agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by a coalition of advocacy groups seeking to compel the agency to collect basic information about CAFOs in the U.S. In that agreement, EPA pledged to require that all CAFOs report basic information that would allow the agency to determine more effectively if a site required permitting: e.g., the location of facilities, the number and types of animals on site, and the methods used to store and dispose of animal waste. It was shocking that this information did not already exist in a database; without it, it is impossible for the agency to protect people and the environment from the massive pollution generated by CAFO.

However, in July 2012, EPA withdrew its proposal to establish such a database. Rather than require the industry to provide simple information that was not otherwise known, the EPA said it would rely on information collected by “existing sources of information” — once again allowing a polluting industry to go unchecked and remain hidden from sight.

Enough is enough. It is time for the Obama administration to live up to its promises to regulate the CAFO industry. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama promised that “the [EPA] will strictly monitor and regulate pollution from large Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) — which raise more than 40 percent of U.S. livestock — with fines for those who violate tough air and water quality standards.” Candidate Obama’s white paper on Iowa factory farms said that “CAFOs pose significant threats to air and water quality.”

“Rather than letting CAFOs off the hook,” the white paper added, “Obama believes they should be subject to the requirements of the Clean Air Act and Superfund just as any other polluter.”

Now, four and a half years later, these facilities are hidden from the public eye while their pollution remains largely unregulated.

Public Justice’s Food Safety and Health Project has targeted CAFO pollution as a top priority. In our efforts to bring this industry into compliance and hold it responsible for illegal practices, I have been deeply affected by the devastation to the communities of people who live near or share waterways with these facilities. These people live in fear of drinking their own water, or using their own streams, lakes and rivers. They are forced indoors by the odors and isolated from their friends and family. And they are trapped because no one wants to buy their homes so they can leave. Most of all, these people feel powerless because when they complain to their government, they are ignored. Communities are depending on the Obama administration to act on its promises and bring them relief. The EPA’s recent agreement fails to do this, and until it does, Public Justice intends to continue its work to empower these communities and bring this industry to justice.

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