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EPA Denies Petition Seeking Stronger Rules on Water Pollution From Factory Farms

The agency instead pledged to study factory farm pollution, but the petitioners say its impacts are already well known.

Pigs that are being given water by animal rights activists are seen inside trucks as they arrive to the Farmer John Slaughterhouse in Vernon, California, on September 26, 2018.

Public health and environmental advocacy groups said that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chose to benefit the factory farming industry instead of protecting communities and drinking water late Tuesday when it denied an anti-pollution petition filed in 2017 by nearly three dozen groups.

Food & Water Watch (FWW), the Center for Food Safety (CFS), and North Carolina Environmental Justice Network were among the organizations that filed the petition six years ago and sued the agency last year due to its “unreasonable delay” in answering the request for stronger rules to prevent water pollution from hundreds of thousands of factory farms across the United States.

The EPA responded to the legal challenge Tuesday by denying the original petition and announcing it would form a federal subcommittee to study the effects of pollution from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and make recommendations to the agency.

The subcommittee is expected to convene in 2024 and its work could take 12-18 months, leaving open the possibility that — should President Joe Biden lose his reelection campaign next year — the question of regulating factory farm pollution could be left up to a Republican administration.

“Factory farms pose a significant and mounting threat to clean water, largely because EPA’s weak rules have left most of the industry entirely unregulated,” said Tarah Heinzen, legal director for FWW. “EPA’s deeply flawed response amounts to yet more delay, and completely misses the moment.”

Though the EPA pledged to study the effects of water pollution from factory farms, the petitioners noted that the impact has already been well-documented.

According to the Sierra Club, “water pollution is possible at virtually any point in a CAFO’s operation,” as waste from factory farms is generally not treated for disease-causing pathogens, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, or heavy metals.

Animal waste spills and overflows can lead to contaminated runoff that ends up in waterways, stormwater can mix with manure and milkhouse waste that flows into drains, waste storage units can overflow or burst, and catch basins can inadvertently drain waste into waterways.

CFS said in a statement that factory farms “operate like sewerless cities” and can contaminate “drinking water with cancer-causing nitrates” as well as flooding homes with waste during storms and leaving communities without safe places for water recreation.

Citing the EPA’s own data in a 2020 brief, FWW found that pollution from factory farms “threatens or impairs over 14,000 miles of rivers and streams and more than 90,000 acres of lakes and ponds nationwide.”

“We know that animal factories are a huge source of water pollution and that our freshwater is in crisis, and yet EPA has failed to uphold its duty to protect our environment from this industry,” said Amy van Saun, a senior attorney with CFS. “We have a right to clean and safe water and we cannot afford to wait any longer to stop the tide of pollution from animal factories.”

The 2017 petition called on the EPA to improve the CAFO permitting process, as fewer than one-third of the largest 21,000 factory farms have National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits, which regulate the point sources which discharge pollutants into waterways.

Ben Lilliston, director of rural strategies at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, said that by denying the petition the EPA “chose to further a special exemption for factory farms that benefits global meat companies while undermining independent farmers raising animals in ways that protect our water.”

“Today’s EPA decision kicks the can down the road,” he said, “instead of acting to protect rural communities and our nation’s waterways.”

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