Food & Water Watch Sues EPA to Protect Waterways from Factory Farm Pollution

Suit alleges EPA illegally failed to update outdated water pollution standards for the factory farm industry

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Food System

Portland, OR— Today, Food & Water Watch filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals over the agency’s failure to update factory farm wastewater guidelines as required by the Clean Water Act.

Under the Clean Water Act, EPA is required to annually review, and if necessary, strengthen, industry-wide pollution standards—called effluent limitation guidelines—for factory farms, or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). These guidelines are supposed to ensure that CAFOs are implementing the technology and management practices necessary to reduce the amount of pollution these operations discharge into the nation’s waterways.

For years, EPA has maintained incredibly lax pollution standards for factory farms, despite mounting evidence that the current guidelines, last updated in 2008, are ineffective. This case challenges EPA’s decision to once again maintain the status quo letting CAFOs off the hook.

“We have over fifteen industrial dairies in our community, and the massive amount of waste they produce is wreaking havoc on our water resources,” said Food & Water Watch member Lynn Utesch. “All three rivers running through Kewuanee County, Wisconsin are impaired with high levels of pollutants associated with CAFOs, and the burden of monitoring and responding to the problem falls on residents like us instead of the CAFO operators. EPA’s CAFO standards just don’t do enough to protect our water quality, and our community is suffering for it.”

Across the country, thousands of CAFOs produce vast quantities of manure containing pollutants like E. coli, nitrogen, phosphorous, pharmaceuticals, and heavy metals, which are discharged into waterways. But EPA’s current CAFO guidelines only apply to the largest of operations, do not regulate many of the pollutants of concern coming out of these industrial facilities, and sanction manure storage and disposal practices that are known to harm water quality. Having been left largely unregulated, the agriculture sector, including factory farms, is one of the biggest sources of water pollution in the country.

“Food & Water Watch has been trying to get EPA to do its job and regulate factory farm polluters for years,” said Emily Miller, Staff Attorney for Food & Water Watch.“In 2017, we filed a petition asking EPA to update these guidelines, which are based on outdated information and fail to adequately control the myriad ways in which CAFOs pollute. EPA has not even responded to that petition, but it will have to respond to this lawsuit.” 

If successful, the case could have wide-reaching impact, forcing EPA to re-consider its nationally applicable CAFO guidelines. A proper review of the current, lax guidelines would likely result in a determination that more stringent national standards are required to protect water quality.

Food & Water Watch and Earthrise Law Center represent the plaintiff.