Regulating Animal Feeding Operations: A New Attempt


They say optimism is seeing the glass half full. They also say one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. You can decide for yourself whether 35 of the country’s environmental groups are optimistic or crazy, but they’re trying something that has been tried before, and doing it under less-favorable conditions than ever.

The groups have filed a petition with EPA to strengthen regulations on CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations. Specifically, they do not want CAFOs to be exempt from Clean Water Act regulations, as many other agricultural operations now are, and they want CAFOs to be treated as point pollution sources.

It’s been well established that these operations, in which large numbers of poultry or other livestock are housed together, produce pollutants that are detrimental to surface waters. The most obvious are nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from the manure, which can lead to algae blooms and eutrophication of water bodies, but other pollutants of concern include pathogens, antibiotics and hormones that are fed to the animals, pesticides, salts, and even traces of arsenic. CAFOs also produce large amounts of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. Over the last few decades CAFOs have been increasing in number and size, and much of the meat consumed in the US is now produced in these facilities.

CAFOs in some places have already been subject to somewhat greater regulation than most other agricultural operations, but the new petition demands that they all must either demonstrate they release no discharges or else obtain permits under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), as construction sites, urban areas, and other entities do. The petition also calls for all CAFOs to perform water-quality monitoring and says no discharges should be considered as nonpoint-source pollution. “The CWA prohibits the ‘discharge of a pollutant’ by any person from any point source, unless in compliance with a NPDES permit,” the petition says. “Nonetheless . . . EPA’s CAFO regulations have failed for decades to reliably bring discharging CAFOs into the NPDES permitting program . . . EPA must establish a presumption that certain operations actually discharge, as opposed to having the potential to discharge or proposing to discharge.”

One of the groups’ arguments is that, by failing to put stronger laws in place at the federal level, EPA has allowed inconsistent and weak state laws to govern the CAFOs’ operation. Yet the new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, has long advocated returning authority for many environmental matters to the states. As the attorney general of Oklahoma, he sued EPA several times for what he saw as federal overreach.  

The executive director of Food and Water Watch, one of the groups that filed the petition, said, “Pruitt’s record as Oklahoma attorney general shows that he’s only looking out for industry interests, including the interests of polluting factory farms. But the EPA is legally bound to protect communities from pollution, and we intend to hold the agency accountable for doing its job.”

The agricultural industry has responded. The environmental counsel for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, for example, pointed out that previous legal challenges to the way EPA regulates CAFOs have failed. “It’s frivolous and they are now grasping at straws simply because they do not like the new [EPA] administrator. Instead of trying to force more regulation, these groups would be better off spending their time and resources working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers who work diligently to care for our natural resources.”

This article summarizes the petition and presents some of the reactions. You can see the full petition here. EC_bug_web

  • Patrick R.

    We all need to work together to be successful in water conservation and protection. If we don’t know this by now we are doomed. Or as you say, insane…

  • Pauline Burnes, Registered Landscape Architect and Land Planner.

    We need more agricultural researchers and chemists working on turning waste to a saleable product. When farms were smaller, the “waste” was used to put back into the land to improve soils. With the advent of chemical fertilizers, the organic matter became increasingly depleted. Lets get the think tanks on and get back to basics, reducing expensive inputs for farmers and ranchers as well.

  • Some years ago, the Idaho legislature moved oversight of the sewage lagoons for CAFOs from DEQ to Ag. The result: Not one CAFO lagoon has been leak-tested. And due to the very concentrated nature of the waste, we have 5 nitrate priority groundwater zones along the Snake River. A case of not enough regulation? Regulation pushes the development of better technology, not self-policing Agri-business.

  • Edo McGowan.

    Janice——-admittedly, the US-EPA has been clientele captured by the industries it was originally established to regulate. But that behaviour is a reaction to the corpotate purchasing of the best politicians money can buy. Unfortunately, not noted in the article is the fact that some of the most interesting multi-drug resistant pathogens are generated by the accompanying food additives that these CAFOs use to enhance profits. The externalities of this are and will continue to be seen in the advancement of superbugs. Since the corporate structure profits from all this, it will only end when an almost complete and catastrophic failure of antibiotics overwhelms medicine. Many of the now routinely accepted restorative surgeries will no longer be available. Will procedures such as knees and hips so keenly endorsed by Baby Boomers be off the list of surgeries because of unstoppable infections? Will dragging a CAFO packaged supermarket product across the kitchen surfaces see the whole house sequentially contaminated? Studies of this type and process of contamination are found in the scientific literature.

    Dr Edo McGowan

  • Clint White.

    Pruitt sued the EPA repeatedly while he was also busy dismantling the Oklahoma health and environment offices. The water in OK suffered due to his policies. How is it possible we have allowed this at the national level? Just like the separation of church and state, we need a separation of corporation and state — and nation! Those under bottled water order for algal bloom toxins somehow forgot about that when voting, and so did the rest of the nation. Time to educate children and protect the environment, both things that are off the table for 4 years.


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