The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will launch a regulatory initiative to identify and investigate thousands of factory farms that have been avoiding government regulation for animal waste pollution, according to a settlement reached last Wednesday on a lawsuit filed by environmental groups over a Bush administration water pollution regulation.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Waterkeeper
Alliance filed the lawsuit over a rule that effectively exempted
thousands of factory farms from taking steps to minimize water pollution
from the animal waste they generate.
More than 30 years ago, Congress
identified factory farms as water pollution sources to be regulated
under the Clean Water Act’s permit program. But under this rule, massive
facilities were able to escape government regulation by claiming–without government verification–that they do not discharge into
waterways protected by the Clean Water Act.
“Thousands of factory farm polluters threaten America’s water with animal waste, bacteria, viruses and parasites that can make people sick,” said NRDC senior attorney Jon Devine. “Many of these massive facilities are flying completely under the radar; EPA doesn’t even know where they are. Our lawsuit and today’s settlement rejects industry’s self-policing practices and requires EPA to start gathering the missing information it needs to clean up our waterways and protect public health.”
Under the settlement, EPA will initiate a new national effort to track down factory farms operating without permits and determine for itself if they must be regulated. The specific information that EPA will ultimately require from individual facilities will be determined after a period of public comment. But the results of that investigation will enable the agency and the public to create stronger pollution controls in the future and make sure facilities are complying with current rules.
Factory farms, also known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), confine animals on an industrial scale and produce massive amounts of manure and other waste that can pollute waterways with dangerous contaminants. These large-scale operations routinely over-apply liquid waste on land, which runs off into waterways, killing fish, spreading disease, and contaminating drinking water. EPA estimates that pathogens, such as E. coli, are responsible for 35% of the nation’s impaired river and stream miles, and factory farms are one of the most common pathogen sources.
Now dominating animal production nationwide, confined livestock operations generate more than three times the waste that people do, according to EPA estimates, yet factory farms lack waste treatment facilities comparable to those that treat human sewage.
“The record is clear: large CAFO operations–and many medium and small operations–commonly discharge pollutants into the surrounding environment. What is also clear is that if we want to continue to drink, fish and enjoy water that is not contaminated with raw animal excrement, these discharges must be stopped,” said Waterkeeper Alliance attorney Hannah Connor. “We believe that the terms of this settlement will help reverse this industry’s history of bad behavior by improving implementation and enforcement of the law.”
NRDC, Sierra Club and Waterkeeper Alliance have a history of fighting to clean up water pollution from factory farms. Litigation brought by these groups has forced EPA to revise its CAFO rules twice within the past decade to tighten the pollution control requirements on these facilities.