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

Published Jun 7, 2021


Food System

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.

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.

For years, the 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, which poses a substantial threat to public health and ecosystems.

Yet every year since 2008, the 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 the EPA to court. 

The EPA’s Current CAFO Guidelines Aren’t Strong Enough

Our lawsuit challenges the EPA’s bogus review of its factory farm pollution standards. This review led the agency to decide that all was well and that no revisions or updates were needed.

The Clean Water Act requires the EPA to annually review these standards, known as “effluent limitations guidelines.” It also directs the EPA to strengthen the guidelines if the agency finds they aren’t effectively controlling the industry’s pollution. 

The EPA’s current CAFO guidelines:

  • only apply to the very largest of operations,
  • don’t 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 can store millions of gallons of liquid manure in structures that are designed to — and often do — leak. Once those manure pits are full, the EPA allows operators to apply this waste to fields in ways and at quantities that harm water quality. 

But here’s the overarching problem: the EPA’s so-called “review” of these guidelines relied on pollution monitoring data that CAFO operators self-report to the agency. Yet, the EPA doesn’t 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.)

If the EPA doesn’t require CAFOs to monitor their pollution, then the sparse data that the EPA reviewed isn’t an accurate representation of the industry’s impacts. Not by a long shot. In essence, the EPA has created a feedback loop that insulates the industry and itself from having to issue more protective regulations.

To add insult to injury, the 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. They’ve also shown that manure is responsible for a significant share of that pollution. 

If We Win, EPA Will Have 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. They regularly discharge that manure (which contains pollutants like E. coli, nitrogen, phosphorus, pharmaceuticals, and heavy metals) into waterways we rely on for drinking water and recreation. 

If the court agrees that the 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 we need more stringent national standards to protect water quality. 

The 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 the EPA and this polluting industry accountable!

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