Factory Farm Pollution Harms Family Farms and Frontline Communities

Published May 1, 2024


Food System

We’re suing the EPA for its inaction on factory farm water pollution. Recently, farmer advocates, environmental justice communities, and scientists weighed in.

We’re suing the EPA for its inaction on factory farm water pollution. Recently, farmer advocates, environmental justice communities, and scientists weighed in.

Julie Duhn has lived in Iowa all her life and has seen firsthand the explosion of the hog industry. Hardin County, where she has lived for 50 years, now has 50 hogs for every human, and they are stuffed into massive factory farms. 

Hardin County hogs produce 120 times more manure than the human population.1Analysis of the 2022 USDA Ag Census and U.S. Census. And while human waste is treated to protect rivers and streams, factory farm waste isn’t. Across the country, this waste sits in vast cesspools or collects in pits under the confined animals until it’s spread, untreated, on fields as fertilizer. 

Given the massive volume of factory farm waste and how carelessly it’s managed, it’s no surprise that it takes a huge toll on nearby waterways.

The Clean Water Act was passed 50 years ago to prevent this. However, for decades, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has largely failed to enforce the law for factory farms. In 2017, Food & Water Watch and allies petitioned the Agency to finally start upholding the law by strengthening its lax clean water regulation of factory farms. However, it denied our urgent request, so in 2023, we led a coalition of groups to sue the EPA

The Agency knows that it’s not only communities demanding better regulations; the science and the law demand them, too. Yet, it has delayed action and says it needs to further study the problem before it can make changes.

In March, environmental justice groups, family farm advocates, and scientists from across the country submitted amicus briefs to the Court in support of our suit. These briefs lay bare just how disastrous the EPA’s inaction has been, and they highlight the diverse coalition of people who are taking a stand for their communities.

The Agency’s Lax Regulations Ignore the Science on Contamination

For years, Julie Duhn took her children to nearby Pine Lake State Park to enjoy the woods, trails, and lakes. But while kayaking on the lake in 2016, Julie was splashed with water. She soon developed unbearable rashes, and her doctor suggested it was from contaminated lake water. Now, Julie and her family no longer kayak or visit the beaches due to the frequent pollution from factory farms.

Julie is not alone. Factory farms contaminate beloved waterways across the country. That’s because, without strong regulations, they have no reason to manage their waste responsibly. 

Many factory farms collect that waste in lagoons. These are often unlined, open-air pits containing a toxic soup of urine, blood, feces, pathogens, pharmaceuticals, and even heavy metals. By design, manure lagoons leak and pollute groundwater. This pollution can harm residents reliant on well water, and it often flows into nearby surface waters. 

Moreover, factory farms overapply their waste to fields as fertilizer, at rates that may be good for maximizing crop yield but are dangerous to water quality. As you can imagine, this kind of waste “management” poses huge health hazards

The EPA knows all this, yet allows these harmful practices. As scientists explained in their brief, the EPA ignored extensive evidence that its current regulations are failing to stem the tide of pollution — despite acknowledging much of this evidence in previous reports and lawsuits.

Moreover, the Agency allows most factory farms to operate without Clean Water Act permits at all. Federal law requires all discharging factory farms to follow permits outlining strict pollution control requirements. 

Nevertheless, by the EPA’s own estimate, there are nearly 10,000 factory farms that are illegally discharging pollution without a permit. Yet, the agency has done nothing to resolve this, allowing factory farms to pollute without any oversight whatsoever.

The EPA Allows a Public Health Hazard to Harm Environmental Justice Communities

As the brief from environmental justice groups explains, factory farm pollution is especially detrimental for communities that face additional burdens and injustices. Often, corporations build new factory farms near majority people of color and low-income communities because these communities lack the political clout or resources to successfully oppose them. 

In rural North Carolina, majority-Black neighborhoods are on average four times closer to hog factory farms than majority-white ones. From Maryland to Delaware to Mississippi, poultry factory farms are more likely to be near low-income communities and communities of color.

This threatens these communities’ ability to access clean water and their local aquatic ecosystems. In many rural communities, fishing is essential for feeding families and making a living. Many Indigenous people and people of color depend on fishing for food more than the average person in the U.S. 

One man in Duplin County, NC, shared with the Court that he had 30 factory farms within three miles of his home. He stopped fishing ten years ago when he started catching fish with open sores, which he suspected were caused by factory farm pollution. 

He explained how in Duplin County, “Hunting and fishing are a way of life, and most people do not have extra income to spare.” Polluted waterways mean less food on the table for some families. 

The EPA Gives Big Ag an Unfair Advantage Over Family Farmers

It’s clear our regulations are failing when it’s cheaper for corporations to pollute and let others bear the costs than to clean up their acts. This not only impacts communities and the environment — it impacts the livelihoods of family farmers and rural economies. 

Many family farms grow food more sustainably and produce much less waste and pollution than factory farms. By letting factory farms off the hook for cleaning up their mess, the EPA is essentially subsidizing them. It takes good manure management out of the cost of doing business. And it lets communities foot the bill through costs like water treatment and healthcare. 

As farmer advocates point out in their brief, lax regulations give factory farms an unfair advantage. They help Big Ag corporations cut corners, boost profits, get bigger, and gain more power — crowding family farms out of the market altogether. 

Big Ag’s market power has a huge impact on the small farmers who have been able to continue farming. It allows corporations to command lower prices and squeeze family farmers’ income. Before the 1970s, farm families made most of their income from farming. But by 2022, only half of farmers whose primary job was farming netted any money from it at all. By letting factory farms pollute with impunity, the EPA is only further disadvantaging farmers who are doing things right.

The EPA Must Act Quickly to Protect Communities from Factory Farms

The research and stories these advocates shared with the Court underscore the wide-ranging harms of factory farm pollution. Farmers know them, rural communities know them, scientists know them — and they are speaking out to prevent more harm.

The EPA has already acknowledged that its current rules aren’t stemming the tide of factory farm water pollution. And as Julie Duhn wrote to the Court, “Without stronger [factory farm] permitting regulations that ensure transparency and rigorous control and enforcement, I am certain that the water will continue to be polluted.” By skirting its legal duty and leaving loopholes open for factory farms, the Agency is putting millions across the country at growing risk.

The EPA must strengthen its Clean Water Act rules for factory farms and protect families from more harm. And Food & Water Watch won’t stop fighting until it does. 

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