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August 28th, 2013

Willful Ignorance

Meet Scott Edwards of Food & Water WatchBy Scott Edwards

Today Food & Water Watch, represented by Columbia University’s School of Law Environmental Law Clinic, filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for abandoning a proposed rule (the 308 Rule) that would have finally given the agency some basic information about one of the nation’s largest ongoing sources of pollution: factory farms, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). In October 2011, EPA proposed collecting data to find out basic information about these industrial livestock facilities including where they are located, who owns and operates them, and how many animals they contain. In July 2012, EPA caved to pressure from the livestock industry and decided not to collect the data after all. EPA claims it will use “existing sources” for the data, but as Food & Water Watch’s analysis of internal EPA documents demonstrates, EPA can’t back up that claim. EPA simply can’t regulate CAFOs effectively if they don’t even know how many there are and how they operate. When it comes to factory farms, EPA embraces an “ignorance is bliss” approach that continues to bring anything but bliss to our waterways and the many communities that suffer daily from the many harmful impacts of this highly polluting industry.

EPA acknowledges in the rule itself that “[a]gricultural operations, including CAFOs, now account for a significant share of the remaining water pollution problems in the United States.” And, yet, CAFOs remain exempt from the basic standards of accountability faced by other polluting industries. The kind of information that EPA was supposed to collect with the 308 Rule is the same type of information that is readily available for every other polluting industry in the country – power plants, chemical manufacturers, wastewater treatment facilities.  But for the past 40 years, the meat industry has been extremely successful in blocking all attempts to hold these facilities accountable for any of the myriad of environmental and public health harms they cause.

The factory farm industry claims that CAFOs are private residences and that public scrutiny violates operators’ “privacy.” But running any business out of a person’s home—like daycares, for instance—is no excuse for hiding from regulation, especially when it protects society and the communities in which they operate. The meat industry’s plea for farmer privacy is really just a strong-armed end-run to keep the EPA from doing its job—regulating pollution.

How pitiful is EPA’s grasp on the factory farm industry?

  • EPA doesn’t know how many CAFOs there are, let alone where they are located. In recent documents acquired from EPA through a Freedom of Information Act request, and analyzed by FWW, the Agency estimates that there are just over 18,500 CAFOs in the country. That’s much less than half of the over 47,000 CAFOs the United States Department of Agriculture estimates. 
  • EPA estimates that fewer than half of CAFOs have federal permits that manage pollution and run-off.
  • States possess a range of information about CAFOs, but most states do not have up-to-date CAFO regulations, and many states do not regulate CAFOs effectively.

The goal of the lawsuit is a fairly simple one. FWW is looking for EPA to fulfill its mission with respect to CAFOs and start to get a better understanding about one of the largest sources of pollution threatening our nation’s rivers, streams and bays, and ultimately our communities. It’s a sad commentary on the Agency and the state of CAFO regulations when we have to go to court to get that done.

 Check out the Food & Water Watch report, The EPA’s Failure to Track Factory Farms here.


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