Today, Food & Water Watch and ten other organizations reached an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a lawsuit against the agency’s unreasonable delay in responding to the groups’ 2017 petition to overhaul the agency’s water pollution regulations for factory farms (also known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs). Under today’s agreement, EPA has committed to answering the petition by August 15. If successful, the petition could push EPA to adopt tighter water pollution standards for factory farms across the country.
This is the second Food & Water Watch lawsuit this year to successfully pressure EPA to scrutinize factory farm water pollution. In January, in response to a 2021 lawsuit, EPA announced a plan to undertake a detailed study of CAFO water pollution to determine whether and how to strengthen its Clean Water Act regulation of the industry under its effluent limitation guidelines.
“For decades, EPA has turned a blind eye to factory farm pollution. This regulatory negligence has failed to protect sensitive waterways and public health,” said Food & Water Watch Staff Attorney Emily Miller. “Answering our petition, which sets out a roadmap for EPA to fix this broken system and do its job, is the first step towards putting meaningful protections in place. After six years of delay, EPA’s commitment to an August 15 deadline represents a move at lightning speed for the agency — we hope this indicates a commitment to finally give factory farm pollution the attention it requires. We look forward to finally receiving EPA’s decision.”
CAFOs generate and dispose of enormous quantities of animal waste. This waste contains nutrients responsible for dead zones and harmful algal blooms, pathogens like E. coli, antibiotics, and heavy metals. CAFOs are a leading source of water pollution nationally and are “point sources” of pollution subject to regulation under Clean Water Act permits. Yet more than 50 years after the Act’s passage, EPA estimates that only about 30% of the largest factory farms are regulated. Even where Clean Water Act permits are in place, they often fail to adequately protect waterways.
The 2017 CAFO petition, submitted by Food & Water Watch and dozens of co-petitioners, provides EPA with a roadmap to close loopholes that have enabled CAFOs to avoid regulation, and to make permits stronger and more effective. EPA is required to answer rulemaking petitions within a reasonable time. But in this case, it has failed to answer the petition for more than six years, spurring petitioners to sue for a response in October 2022.
The 2017 petition seeks to improve both the quantity and quality of CAFO permits by subjecting more factory farms to regulation and strengthening pollution permits for the facilities. Specific recommendations include:
- Revising the “agricultural stormwater” exemption, which has allowed many CAFOs to evade permitting
- Establishing a presumption that certain CAFOs pollute and require permits
- Improving discharge monitoring
- Prohibiting practices known to harm water quality, and
- Strengthening national pollution standards known as effluent limitation guidelines.
Petitioners in the lawsuit include: Food & Water Watch, Center for Food Safety, Dakota Rural Action, Dodge County Concerned Citizens, the Environmental Integrity Project, Helping Others Maintain Environmental Standards, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Kewaunee CARES, Midwest Environmental Advocates, and North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. The petitioners are represented by Food & Water Watch, Earthrise Law Center, and Public Justice.
The 33 original petitioners include six national public interest advocacy organizations, and twenty-seven state and community-based organizations based in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Collectively, Petitioners represent millions of members and supporters from across the country.