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August 3rd, 2012

Keeping Secrets Down on the Factory Farm

By Scott Edwards

Scott Edwards, co-director of the Food & Water Justice project

Sadly, irrational legislative proposals coming out of the House have become so commonplace these days that they’re rarely something to write home about. But every so often there’s one that makes such little sense that you just can’t help but scratch your head and set pen to paper if, for nothing else, a little bit of self-administered therapy. Such is the case with the “Farmer’s Privacy Act of 2012,” recently introduced by Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R – W. Va.). The Bill, H.R. 5961, seeks to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from flying over large-scale livestock operations as part of their effort to enforce the Clean Water Act against some of the biggest polluters of waterways in the country.

Rep. Capito’s effort to ground EPA arises out of some recent grumblings in the Midwest and in West Virginia where the Agency has been conducting flyovers to monitor Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) for water pollution violations. These mega-meat factories amass thousands of animals in small areas to lower production costs and increase integration with meatpackers and chicken processors. These industrial operations have hidden behind the guise of the “family farm” in order to avoid regulation for years. The truth is that meat production in the U.S. is dominated not by family–owned farms, but by giant agribusinesses like Perdue, Smithfield, Tyson and a handful of others. Among the meat industry, four companies control 66% of pork, 58% of chicken and 83% of beef processing. Their lobbyists in DC and throughout the states wield a considerable amount of political influence on both sides of the aisle while the companies profit enormously off the environmental and human health impacts on our communities, and from not paying a fair price to small and independent livestock producers.

Just last month EPA suddenly abandoned its plan to gather even the most basic information from the over 20,000 highly polluting, and largely unregulated, meat factories in the United States. In the preamble to its now discarded proposed information gathering rule, also known as a 308 rule, EPA seemed to be on the right path to finally fulfill its mission to “protect human health and the environment” from the impacts of these facilities. It noted that CAFOs generate around 300 million tons of manure each year, triple the amount of bodily wastes from all the people in the country. Almost all of this waste is held in open lagoons and/or dumped on adjacent lands where it flows into our rivers and seeps into our groundwater. They also confirmed that manure from these massive operations contain more than 40 diseases, including tuberculosis, salmonellosis, infant diarrheal disease and giardiasis, which can be transferred to humans through dirty water. These diseases, the preamble noted, are in addition to the massive amounts of nutrients, heavy metals (including arsenic) and antibiotics that pour into our surface and drinking water supplies on a daily basis from this irresponsible industry.

You would think that this dire, documented list of industry ills would have been enough to warrant some kind of determined Agency response. But the proposed information gathering process was more concerned about “burdens” on the polluters than protecting U.S. citizens. Under its most forceful option, it was only going to require industry to submit information related to the name of the CAFO owner, the location, whether the CAFO had a Clean Water Act permit, the number of animals and the amount of acres of land available for land application of manure to grow crops. Environmental groups around the country submitted comments lambasting EPA for its lackadaisical approach to the data gathering and encouraging them to finally amass the information needed to properly regulate the industry and protect our waterways. As weak as it was though, it apparently was not weak enough to satisfy the White House which, according to rumors, ordered EPA to abandon the plan.

So now EPA isn’t going to gather the information it needs from CAFOs and House politicians are seeking to stop the agency from being able to enforce even the minimal laws under the Clean Water Act to protect our waterways. Capito’s bill won’t allow EPA to fly over CAFOs unless the agency gets written permission from them. In fact, the bill goes so far as to stop EPA from using “aerial or satellite images, regardless of whether the images are publically available.” In other words, EPA can’t even look up a CAFO on Google Earth.

While EPA is charged with enforcing our environmental laws, Rep. Capito wants to stop them from being able to do so by telling them they can’t even go out on patrol. What’s next? Telling town building inspectors that they’re not allowed to drive through communities looking for building code violations? Or how about we tell foot patrol police officers that they can’t walk their beat unless they first get written permission from all the people on the block. Where’s my Pedestrian Privacy Act?

This nonsensical approach to industrial agriculture is not spawned by any “privacy” concerns as the bill’s title suggests. It’s meant to continue to allow polluters to continue their polluting ways. It’s Rep. Capito’s attempt to replace our right to clean water with an industry right to poison our waterways in pursuit of profits. Industrial ag already owns our watersheds as they continue to pollute with immunity; Rep. Capito now wants them to own our airways too. She should be a little more honest about her bill and call it what it really is: the We Don’t Care About Clean Water Act.

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