Food & Water Watch v. Environmental Protection Agency

For years, EPA has maintained lax pollution standards for factory farms, despite evidence that current guidelines fail to protect waterways.


Food SystemClean Water

Under the Clean Water Act, EPA is required to annually review, and if necessary, strengthen, industry-wide pollution standards—called effluent limitations guidelines—for factory farms, or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). These guidelines are supposed to ensure that CAFOs are using the best available technology and management practices to reduce their water pollution.

For years, EPA has maintained incredibly lax pollution standards for factory farms, despite mounting evidence that the current guidelines, last updated in 2008, fail to protect waterways. This case, filed in the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals challenges EPA’s January 2021 decision to maintain the status quo and keep the inadequate guidelines as-is. The agency’s decision was based on a so-called “review” of CAFO pollution, but its cursory analysis focused on incomplete data which failed to capture the full scope of the industry’s polluting impacts.

Across the country, thousands of CAFOs produce vast quantities of manure containing pollutants like E. coli, nitrogen, phosphorous, pharmaceuticals, and heavy metals, which threaten public health and ecosystems when discharged into waterways. EPA itself has established that agricultural activities, including CAFOs, are one of the “leading known sources” of surface water pollution in the United States. Yet EPA’s current CAFO guidelines sanction manure storage and disposal practices that simply exacerbate the problem. For instance, CAFO operators are allowed to store millions of gallons of liquid manure in structures that are designed to—and often do—leak. And once those manure pits are full, EPA allows operators to apply this waste to fields in ways, and at quantities, that are known to harm water quality.

Leaving these outdated, unprotective factory farm pollution guidelines on the books violates the Clean Water Act and EPA’s review and revision obligations. Our lawsuit asks the court to require EPA to reconsider its untenable position and potentially adopt more stringent national standards that better protect our nation’s waterways.