The USDA is approving a swarm of slaughterhouse requests to speed up kill lines – even as workers suffer illness and are unable to report for duty. They’re also giving meat companies control over food safety oversight, in place of trained government inspectors. At the same time, slaughterhouses have become COVID-19 hotspots, and are closing as workers fall ill. These slaughter plants, and the factory farms that supply them, are huge sources of water and air pollution that frequently violate pollution laws even under normal circumstances. At a time when these industries are facing pandemic related disruptions, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should be providing more environmental oversight than ever, not less.
But instead of working to prevent environmental disaster or increasing oversight of polluters, the EPA is giving them a free pass to ramp up harmful practices.
EPA’s COVID-19 Memo Is A Deregulation Plan For Big Ag
In its recent COVID-19 compliance memo, EPA announced it will not enforce “routine compliance monitoring and reporting” violations that polluters claim were caused by COVID-19. This may sound like it only covers paperwork oversights by understaffed and overstretched companies, but in reality it guts enforcement and will likely mean more pollution. “Routine compliance monitoring” is how companies know if they are meeting permit limits for toxic air and water pollution, and reporting those monitoring results is how regulators know when to act and how frontline communities know what they are being exposed to.
EPA’s policy — which has no end date and no requirement that violators prove COVID-19 caused their violations unless requested — is the opposite of what EPA should be doing while pollution threatens to heighten the pandemic’s threat to public health. What’s more, EPA did not need to issue a memo to consider COVID-19 when enforcing our most essential environmental protections. EPA and state agencies already have “enforcement discretion.” Agencies with limited resources do not pursue every problem – this is one reason Congress included mechanisms in many bedrock environmental laws to let citizens sue polluters when government ignores violations. In fact, in this administration EPA enforcement has already plummeted – no memo required.
The EPA Is Helping Big Ag Use COVID-19 To Avoid Pollution Restrictions
So why did EPA issue its new policy under the cover of COVID-19? In short, to signal to polluters, including meat processors and factory farms, that they can avoid enforcement by claiming COVID-19 played a role in their failure to follow the law. Given Big Ag’s constant attempts to evade environmental protections, combined with the recent strains on meat processing from coronavirus-related closures, there’s no doubt they'll take full advantage of this dangerous policy.
The pandemic has proven how broken our meat industry is: massive consolidation, weak worker protections, fragile distribution networks and more make consumers and the environment vulnerable. Slaughterhouses and processing plants that farmers and growers are forced to rely on are starting to close and slow down as food workers get sick (though this isn’t resulting in a meat shortage as Smithfield likes to claim). As a result, livestock farmers may be without nearby plants to process their animals, and could be forced to kill animals or house more animals than their operations are designed for — and deal with more-than-usual manure, waste, and dead animals.
This is all happening at a time of year when manure pits are typically already full. More waste without more land is a recipe for a huge over-application of manure, which threatens nearby rivers and streams and even drinking water supplies. Dairies whose institutional purchase orders have dried up also increasingly have nowhere to process and package their milk for grocery sales, and are dumping the surplus (while many people across the country go hungry). Some of this milk will also end up filling manure lagoons and contribute to more polluted runoff.
Blame Big Ag, EPA, And State Leaders For The Coming Environmental Catastrophes, Not This Pandemic
States, not EPA, generally take the lead in overseeing water and air pollution, and EPA’s memo does not limit state enforcement. But unfortunately, many states have followed EPA’s example by putting out their own policies of relaxed enforcement for “COVID-caused” violations.
In response to supply chain disruptions, Iowa regulators will allow producers to cram more hogs in their barns and will waive fines for certain violations. Minnesota and Wisconsin have also adopted regulatory flexibility policies, and Wisconsin is loosening requirements for disposal of milk — which contains even more nitrogen and phosphorus than manure, posing a serious threat to waterways.
It’s too early to tell how disastrous the consequences of these policies will be. Will competitors that skirt regulations boost profits and start an environmental race to the bottom? With regulators more interested in giving Big Ag a free pass than taking action to prevent pollution, we can guess the answer.
One thing is certain. The pandemic won’t be to blame for any coming environmental catastrophes; Big Ag and its regulatory enablers will.
We Can Act Now To Prevent Future Free-For-Alls Like This In Our Food System
Corporate consolidation and factory farms have made our food system a house of cards, and COVID-19 has simply laid bare how vulnerable it really is. We may never know the extent to which polluter protection policies from the states and EPA will have contributed to environmental injustice and harmed the health of our most vulnerable communities. But we do know that we can prevent this from happening again by building a food system that is just, resilient, and sustainable.
The Farm System Reform Act, sponsored by Senator Cory Booker, will ban and phase out large factory farms, provide funding to help farmers transition to different forms of food production, hold meat companies responsible for factory farm pollution, and establish critical protections for farmers and ranchers from unfair business practices. As we mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we must refuse to sacrifice our environment to prop up Big Ag. Stand alongside us in supporting the Farm System Reform Act by signing this petition today.