Our Lawsuit Pushes EPA to Finally Act on Factory Farm Pollution

Five years after we called on the EPA to strengthen water regulations for factory farms, the agency has not acted. Meanwhile, communities continue to suffer.

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Food SystemClean Water

by Emily Miller

Factory farming is a seriously messy business that has caused water pollution problems across the country. These industrial livestock operations generate mountains of waste, wreaking havoc on the environment and ecosystems. They also pollute public waterways and drinking water sources at dangerous levels, jeopardizing public health. 

These threats prompted Food & Water Watch to file a rulemaking petition with the EPA, urging the agency to strengthen its clean water rules for factory farms (also called concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs). 

But nearly six years later, the EPA has done nothing about it, while communities continue to suffer from the pollution of this largely unregulated industry. The EPA’s complete failure to act is unacceptable — and it’s illegal. So we took them to court.

EPA’s Approach to CAFO Water Pollution is Broken. We Know How To Fix It. 

For decades, the EPA’s lax approach to factory farms has allowed the industry to freely pollute our waterways. The Clean Water Act clearly defines CAFOs as “point sources” of pollution. This should require them to follow discharge permits restricting their discharges into rivers and streams. 

But due to the EPA’s weak regulations, only a small fraction of factory farms have the required permits. In fact, the agency itself estimates there are nearly 10,000 Large CAFOs nationwide illegally discharging without a Clean Water Act permit. 

Even the permits that do exist are weak and don’t adequately protect water quality. For instance, these permits only limit nutrient and pathogen pollution, commonly associated with animal manure. But factory farm waste is not just manure; it contains many other pollutants of concern, such as antibiotics, artificial growth hormones, pesticides, and heavy metals. 

Moreover, EPA allows CAFOs to dump huge quantities of untreated waste onto cropland — even when no crops are growing. This risks dangerous waste seeping into the soil and running off into streams. 

Our 2017 petition details how the EPA’s regulation of factory farms has failed to protect waterways and communities, and it urges the EPA to strengthen its lax approach. It also provides a roadmap for the EPA to make permits stronger and more effective and close loopholes that have enabled CAFOs to avoid regulation. 

Though the EPA itself admits that its current rules don’t effectively stem the tide of factory farm water pollution, it has refused to answer the petition. 

The agency’s failure to respond violates the Administrative Procedure Act. This law requires agencies like the EPA to respond to petitions “within a reasonable time.” Federal courts count a reasonable time for agency action in weeks or months, not years — and certainly not over half a decade.

Our Lawsuit Will Force EPA to Respond And Give Voice to Those Affected

Agency delay is especially outrageous when public health is at stake. Communities across the country are suffering the impacts of factory farm pollution. 

For example, take Nancy Utesch who lives in rural Wisconsin surrounded by 16 dairy CAFOs. Her community relies on well water for drinking, but dairy waste has fouled the region’s groundwater. Leaching out of manure lagoons and overapplied to cropland, the waste’s nitrate and e. Coli pollution has made the water unsafe to drink. 

This pollution has sickened countless people in Nancy’s area. She told the court how manure runoff got into a community member’s well, poisoning his entire family. It nearly killed his infant child, who needed treatment in intensive care.

Meanwhile, in South Dakota, David Gillespie used to farm a small plot of land directly downstream from a cattle factory farm. According to David, during heavy rains, factory farm runoff would flow downhill and into the creek running through his property. One day, he fell into this polluted water, just for a few moments. 

But at the time, David had an open blister “smaller than a penny” on his foot. When exposed to the contaminated water, the blister turned into an ulcerous wound. He was eventually rushed to the emergency room and diagnosed with a severe blood infection. 

David spent over a month in the hospital recovering from the near fatal infection, and needed surgery to repair the mutilated bone in his foot. This experience still impacts his health and ability to walk to this day, nearly four years later. 

Until EPA Acts on Factory Farm Pollution, Rural Communities Won’t Be Safe

Without EPA action, factory farm pollution will continue to threaten communities like Nancy’s and David’s. That’s why Food & Water Watch challenged EPA’s unreasonable delay in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. We’ve asked the court to intervene and order the agency to finally respond to the 2017 petition. 

If the EPA grants all or part of the petition, it must finally start updating its CAFO rules. If it denies the petition and continues to let this industry off the hook, we can challenge that decision in court.

Either way, we won’t stop until the EPA finally holds this industry accountable for its devastating impact on people and the planet.

With your support, our legal team fights for stronger water protections for communities across the country.