We’re Suing EPA (Again) For Being Too Soft on Factory Farm Polluters

Factory farm pollution is a large-scale problem trashing waterways, forever altering ecosystems, and stinking up neighborhoods. EPA would prefer to keep giving them a free pass but not on our watch.

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Food System

by Emily Miller

For years, EPA has maintained incredibly lax water pollution standards for factory farms, also known as concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs. It’s not because these operations don’t pollute — they generate millions upon millions of gallons of waste every year. Nor is it because this pollution isn’t finding its way into waterways — it is, where it poses a substantial threat to public health and ecosystems. Yet every year since 2008, EPA has decided to sit back and do next to nothing about it. 

Not only is that just plain wrong, but it’s also against the law. So we’re taking EPA to court. 

Why Food & Water Watch is Bringing This Suit Against EPA

Our lawsuit challenges EPA’s bogus review of its factory farm pollution standards, which led the agency to decide that all was well and that no revisions or updates were needed. The Clean Water Act requires EPA to annually review these standards, known as “effluent limitations guidelines,” and to strengthen the guidelines if EPA finds they are not effectively controlling the industry’s pollution. 

EPA’s current CAFO guidelines only apply to the very largest of operations, do not attempt in any way to address the antibiotics, hormones, or chemical cleaning solutions found in CAFO waste streams, and allow manure storage and disposal practices that simply worsen water quality problems. 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. 

But here’s the overarching problem: EPA’s so-called “review” of these guidelines relied on pollution monitoring data that CAFO operators self-report to the agency, but EPA does not require CAFOs to monitor the pollutants they discharge into waterways at all. (By the way, EPA’s failure to require CAFO pollution monitoring is also illegal, and we’re suing them for that too). Needless to say, if EPA doesn’t require CAFOs to monitor their pollution, then the sparse pollution monitoring data that EPA reviewed is not an accurate representation of the industry’s polluting impacts. Not by a longshot. In essence, EPA has created a feedback loop that insulates the industry — and insulates itself from having to issue more protective regulations.

To add insult to injury, EPA’s cherry-picked review ignored a veritable mountain of evidence demonstrating the inadequacy of its current guidelines. Numerous studies, including an EPA-authored report, have established that agricultural activities, including CAFOs, are one of the “leading known sources” of surface water pollution in the United States, and that manure is responsible for a significant share of that pollution. 

If We Win, EPA Will be Forced to Reconsider Its Hands-off Approach to CAFO Pollution 

As it stands, there are thousands of factory farms across the country producing vast quantities of manure containing pollutants like E. coli, nitrogen, phosphorus, pharmaceuticals, and heavy metals, which are regularly discharged into waterways relied on for drinking water and recreation. 

If the court agrees that EPA failed to conduct an appropriate review of these ineffective guidelines, the agency will have to reconsider its untenable position that the standards are fine the way they are. The facts are clear — proper review will show that more stringent national standards are required to protect water quality. 

EPA has let factory farms off the hook for their water pollution for decades — join us in campaigning in the courts and in communities to finally hold EPA and this polluting industry accountable!

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