We Just Scored A Big Win Against Factory Farm Water Pollution

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Food System

PHOTO CC-BY-USDA, Bob Nichols / Flickr.com

by Tarah Heinzen

Food & Water Watch just won a major court victory against factory farm pollution: the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) statewide Clean Water Act permit for concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in Idaho illegally let these factory farms off the hook for water pollution monitoring.

EPA Loopholes Have Shielded Factory Farm Pollution From The Public

The federal Clean Water Act is supposed to protect our waterways, keeping them safe for recreation and wildlife. One of the most important ways it does that is by requiring polluters – including CAFOs — to follow strict discharge permits that limit pollution. And those permits do not work on an honor system; permitted dischargers are required to show their work through testing their discharges and generating publicly available monitoring reports that demonstrate whether they are meeting permit limits. If a facility violates its permit, citizens and regulators can use the self-reported monitoring information to enforce the law. Monitoring is essential to holding polluters accountable and cleaning up our rivers and streams. 

Despite this, EPA and states have carved out an exception for factory farms, issuing permits that leave monitoring out entirely. These permits simply assume that if a factory farm adopts certain practices to manage its waste, it will meet permit requirements. That approach wouldn’t pass the laugh test with wastewater treatment plants and factories, and we have known for years that it is just as illegal for livestock operations responsible for discharging pharmaceuticals, pathogens, heavy metals, and nutrients that cause harmful algal blooms into our waterways.

Striking a Blow Against EPA’s Special Treatment For The Factory Farm Industry

When EPA issued a permit for Idaho CAFOs that again left out monitoring, Food & Water Watch, along with our allies Snake River Waterkeeper and Earthrise Law Center, took it to court. This was a unique and strategic opportunity to bring our case in federal court because most Clean Water Act permits are issued by states, not EPA, and challenges go to less favorable state forums.

And our strategy paid off. The three-judge Ninth Circuit panel recognized that Idaho CAFOs are a significant source of water pollution and that they threaten water quality through the risk of discharges off of land application fields and from leaching of manure lagoons into waterways. And it agreed that the Idaho permit didn’t contain the monitoring needed to know if a factory farm is complying with the Clean Water Act, or if this unauthorized pollution was taking place, striking down EPA’s permit as unlawful.

This Win Against Factory Farm Pollution Doesn’t Stop In Idaho

Going forward, this means that polluting factory farms in Idaho will now be required to comprehensively monitor and report on their waste discharges and water pollution for the first time. But even more importantly, the Ninth Circuit’s precedent is relevant everywhere factory farm permits take the same illegal approach as in Idaho – which is, essentially, everywhere. We will be working across the country to ensure this win will have broad implications for how pollution from the factory farm industry is regulated going forward.

Factory farms are a large and growing source of water pollution in Idaho and across the country, but without pollution monitoring, they have been able to pollute at will and hide this pollution from citizens and regulators. This victory is a critical first step towards holding factory farms accountable for illegal pollution and stands to provide the information needed not only to enforce the law and advocate for stronger pollution regulation, but to make the case to ban factory farms altogether. The decision also struck a major blow against EPA’s practice of granting illegal exceptions and special treatment to the factory farm industry — and we’ll work to make sure it’s the first of many.

Smart legal work like this is a part of our strategy to save our planet. Will you chip in?

Will Big Ag Keep Getting a Pass Under the Biden Administration?

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Food System

by Tarah Heinzen

The Biden Administration is off to a strong start reviewing and — all signs indicate — preparing to rescind scores of devastating Trump administration rollbacks to environmental, consumer, and public health protections. Michael Regan has been confirmed to lead the EPA, and advocates hope he will tackle undoing the damage of the past four years and implementing bold new policies to address pollution, climate change, and environmental injustice with unprecedented urgency. But, at least so far, this administration is already echoing prior ones on both sides of the political aisle in one critical way – special treatment of agribusiness. Two key Trump handouts to Big Ag have been left off of the Biden administration’s priority list for terrible rules to get rid of. 

Two rules being left in place allow de-regulation of factory farms and meat companies

Factory farms get a pass from reporting emissions

In 2017, environmental groups won a critical fight for factory farm transparency when a federal court struck down a rule exempting factory farms from having to report the toxic air emissions they spew into rural communities. This illegal rule – a holdover from the last days of the George W. Bush administration – had been left on the books throughout the entire Obama administration despite promises that the Obama EPA would consider changing course. 

But the win was fleeting because the Trump EPA quickly acted at the behest of Big Ag to initiate yet another exemption rule with a new (but also unlawful) justification. Food & Water Watch and allies are now in court challenging the rule in an effort to at long last force factory farms to disclose their dangerous air pollution. 

Slaughterhouses get to inspect themselves — at a dangerous speed

The Trump administration also continued prior administrations’ efforts to deregulate slaughterhouses. They enacted a rule that allowed meat companies to speed up hog slaughter lines and allow companies to police themselves with fewer USDA inspectors on the line, despite obvious risks to workers, food safety, and animal welfare. Food & Water Watch is leading one of the legal challenges to the rule, which is moving forward despite government efforts to kick us out of court.  

It’s past time to regulate Big Ag like other polluting industries

We will continue these fights – but we shouldn’t have to. President Biden’s day one Executive Order required agencies to consider reviewing and rescinding all Trump environmental and public health actions. Indeed, the Department of Justice has sought to pause many ongoing legal challenges to Trump’s rollbacks while Biden’s agencies consider new rules that would make much of these ongoing court fights unnecessary. In these two lawsuits seeking accountability for Big Ag, however, DOJ has been conspicuously silent. 

Special treatment for Big Ag is nothing new – under President Obama, EPA not only left Bush’s illegal factory farm air pollution reporting rule in place but also capitulated to industry demands in scrapping a rule for factory farm water pollution transparency and abandoning a process to measure and begin regulating factory farm emissions. Meanwhile, Obama’s USDA – led by Tom Vilsack – failed to address industry consolidation squeezing farmers and consumers, advanced the poultry slaughter de-regulation rules that wrote the playbook for Trump’s hog slaughter rule, and oversaw a massive expansion of factory farming.

President Biden can do better than business as usual with Big Ag

We knew when Vilsack was appointed yet again that it would be an uphill battle to make any progress at USDA, given his terrible legacy during the Obama administration. And Michael Regan’s history of compromise with the factory farm industry in North Carolina – which, along with industry support, is largely credited for his bipartisan confirmation – is cause for concern that agribusiness interests will continue to take priority at EPA over the environment and justice for rural communities. 

But we won’t let the Biden administration continue business as usual. Big Ag’s devastating impacts on the environment, public health, and worker safety demand that we act. We won’t regain the ground we lost under Trump, much less finally rein in Big Ag, if we do not begin by holding President Biden’s EPA and USDA accountable.

Your friends should know about this.