13 Groups Sue EPA Over Factory Farm Water Pollution

Lawsuit seeks to expand and strengthen industry regulation under the Clean Water Act

Published Sep 11, 2023


Food System

Lawsuit seeks to expand and strengthen industry regulation under the Clean Water Act

Lawsuit seeks to expand and strengthen industry regulation under the Clean Water Act

On Friday, Food & Water Watch and 12 groups sued Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency over the agency’s failure to regulate factory farm pollution under the Clean Water Act. The lawsuit follows EPA’s denial last month of a 2017 petition asking EPA to initiate a rulemaking to overhaul its ineffective factory farm regulations; EPA elected instead to form a study group to make recommendations, delaying action until at least 2025—that is, if the agency decides to act at all.

Petitioners’ lawsuit asks the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to reject EPA’s denial and require it to immediately reconsider key reforms proposed in the 2017 petition that have the potential to expand and strengthen water pollution permits for concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

“EPA’s deliberate head-in-sand approach to factory farm regulation has facilitated a national clean water crisis, decades in the making. When given the opportunity to finally right its wrongs, EPA elected instead to double down on special treatment for factory farms,” said Food & Water Watch Legal Director Tarah Heinzen. “Factory farms are polluters by design — true environmental protection requires a willingness by EPA to confront this industry head on. It is high time EPA addressed the crisis it has spent decades enabling.”

Agriculture is the nation’s leading polluter of rivers and lakes. Factory farm waste is responsible for a significant share, including at least 14,000 miles of rivers and 90,000 acres of polluted lakes and ponds nationwide. In 2003, EPA estimated that CAFOs generated more than three times the amount of raw sewage than that of our human population; since then the industry has grown by about 40 percent.

Yet for over 50 years, most factory farms have evaded Clean Water Act regulation altogether. EPA has acknowledged that it lacks basic information about where the nation’s CAFOs are located, let alone which are illegally polluting. Fewer than one third of the country’s 21,000+ largest factory farms have National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits.

“The EPA response is disappointing,” said Kathy Tyler, a Dakota Rural Action Board Member from Big Stone City, SD. “I have personal experience with the impacts of unregulated manure application onto tiled farm fields that has caused significant pollution to streams and lakes. In our area millions of gallons of manure is applied to these fields without concern or oversight.”

“The Trom family farm in rural Dodge County, Minnesota is surrounded by 12 swine factory farms in a 3-mile radius,” said Sonja Trom Eayrs, attorney, rural advocate, farmer’s daughter, and co-founder of Dodge County Concerned Citizens in Minnesota. “Like many families in rural America, ours must contend with dangerous discharges from neighboring factory farms on a daily basis. We’ve contacted the regulators on several occasions, with little to no assistance. What do you do if the regulators will not regulate?”

“In the 1950s and 1960s many of Iowa’s rivers and lakes were essentially lifeless,” said Curt Nelson, Iowa CCI member from Cerro Gordo County. “The 1972 Clean Water Act began the cleanup process. Huge progress was made and life returned to our waters. Sadly the rise of large scale CAFOs and over application of other fertilizers has radically reversed that trend and we are now seeing algae blooms and fish kills. This simply cannot continue.”

“For over a decade, the EPA has doggedly looked the other way as factory farms across the U.S. balloon in size and regional concentration, destroying watersheds and accelerating the decline of endangered species,” said Hannah Connor, Environmental Health Deputy Director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Denying this petition after the Supreme Court took an ax to the Clean Water Act is an appalling abdication of this administration’s clean water and environmental justice objectives. I’m hopeful the court will force the EPA to reconsider its dangerous failure to curb factory farm pollution.”

Petitioners are Food & Water Watch, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, Dakota Rural Action, Dodge County Concerned Citizens, Environmental Integrity Project, Helping Others Maintain Environmental Standards, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Kewaunee CARES, Land Stewardship Project, Midwest Environmental Advocates, and North Carolina Environmental Justice Network.

The petitioners are represented by Food & Water Watch and Earthrise Law Center.


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