EPA Delays Action on Regulations for Animal Agriculture

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Pollution from animal agriculture is threatening our nation's waterways. Each year, livestock operations in the United States generate up to a billion tons of manure, much of it from concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

Although the Obama administration recognizes the threat posed by waste, it continues to hit the snooze button on each opportunity for common-sense controls. Now, as threats to public health and the environment mount, The Pew Charitable Trusts joins businesses, individuals, and nonprofit organizations around the country in urging the Environmental Protection Agency to end the delays and adopt a strong rule to better protect our waterways from the pollution produced by industrial animal agriculture.

One of these watersheds at risk from CAFO pollution feeds the Chesapeake Bay. In 2010, EPA committed to proposing new regulations to curtail CAFO pollution in the nation's largest estuary by June 2012. That date and three others have come and gone. Now, EPA says it is shooting for a deadline of this month for proposing new rules that may apply throughout the bay and nationwide.

“This is a very slow process made slower by extensions and delays,” says Seth Horstmeyer, director of Pew's efforts to reform industrial animal agriculture. “As the clock ticks, the CAFO manure mounts and communities that rely on healthy waterways are put at risk.”

A truck applies liquid manure to a farm field, a common practice for CAFOs.

Infographic: Cleaning Up CAFO Permit Rules


Rise of industrial agriculture

Over the past 60 years, meat production in the United States shifted from traditional, diversified farms to an industrialized system largely owned by corporations reliant on CAFOs that confine as many animals as possible in the smallest space. For increased efficiency, many of these operations may be located close to feed mills and slaughterhouses. This saves the company money on transport and fuel, but it can also create an imbalance if there is too much manure and too little cropland—a situation ripe for spreading pollution.

At the largest of these facilities, huge volumes of manure may be stored uncovered or in open ponds to be applied later to nearby cropland without any substantial level of treatment. When this waste gets into the water, it brings with it a variety of pollutants that can wreak havoc on rivers, lakes, and oceans. Whether waste comes directly from manure storage at an animal production facility or from a nearby field fertilized with manure, it can degrade water, leading to oxygen-depleted “dead zones” that kill fish, contaminate drinking water, and hurt communities.

The wake-up call

When Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, it recognized the changing nature of agriculture and called on EPA to regulate factory farming as it does other “point sources” of pollution—by issuing permits to the largest of these facilities. Decades later, when EPA proposed a revision of long-outdated regulations for these feeding operations, it predicted that the number of CAFOs and amount of manure covered by permits would increase substantially, with threats to water sources consequently diminishing. Today, however, despite those predictions, EPA reports that fewer than 60 percent of CAFOs are operating under Clean Water Act permits.

EPA and state agencies have implemented programs to better control manure pollution, but significant gaps remain. A 2011 report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, noted that within the Chesapeake Bay region—an area that has received intensive support for agricultural conservation efforts—only 1 percent of land fertilized with manure was managed with the proper rate, timing, and methods of application. Other watershed areas in the United States also continue to experience problems—from contamination of local water wells and closure of recreational lakes or costly drinking treatment associated with CAFO operations.

“EPA is charged with protecting our waters from pollutants, but its regulations have not kept pace with the size and numbers of CAFOs across the country,” says Horstmeyer. “The agency must move forward without delay on regulations that provide greater oversight and control over CAFOs, the manure they generate, and how that waste is managed.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts is working to reform industrial animal agriculture for the good of the environment and for all who depend on our nation's waterways for clean water, food, and recreation. The CAFO rule, which is expected May 30, could be a great step in the right direction.

Cattle feedlot along a stream in Iowa was reformed to keep cattle out of the water.