Animal and environmental organizations, joined by several rural community activists, want a U.S. District Court judge to strike down Obama-era regulations that give a break to smaller mid-sized concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
Beryl A. Howell, chief judge for District of Columbia, is hearing the case, filed against USDA and the Farm Service Agency; along with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Farm Service Administrator Richard Fordyce.
Howell was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush.
Filed last December, the complaint was suspended for the partial government shutdown because the federal defendants were cut off from some department sources.
CAFOs, as defined by USDA, shelter thousands of animals for at least 45 days. Long controversial, CAFOs have recently been on the losing side of lawsuits by neighbors in states like Oklahoma and implicated in the E. coli O157: H7 contamination of romaine lettuce in California.
In its final year, the Obama administration gave the smaller or medium size CAFOs a break by eliminating requirements for environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Before that break existed, the Farm Service Agency did the environmental analysis under NEPA to determine the impact of USDA loans or loan guarantees to CAFOs that confined at least 350 dairy cows, 500 cattle, 1250 pigs, 27,500 turkeys, and 50,000 chickens.
Obama’s USDA removed the environmental red tape for CAFOs that confine as many as 699 dairy cows, 999 cattle, 2,499 pigs, 54,999 turkeys, and 124,999 chickens. Those numbers represent the “new medium.”
The two largest organizations among the Plaintiffs are Food & Water Watch, which reported $17 million in annual revenues on 2016 federal tax -exemption forms, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF).
It reported revenues of more than $12 million for 2017.
Along with the other Plaintiffs, they say the environmental reviews serve two critical purposes. “First, they provide a governmental check on the negative externalities of industrial animal feeding operations, which have long been established as having serious effects on communities and the environment,” their complaint says.
“Second, the analyses provided neighbors, nearby farms and advocacy groups–like the Plaintiffs here–with notice of the planned development of new facilities or expansion of existing ones, as well as information about the risks, enabling the public to provide input and raising concerns before the federal government disbursed funds.”
Under the 2016 rules, medium-size or smaller CAFO are assumed to have no environmental impacts and are entirely exempt under NEPA. From there, the Plaintiffs go on to make many claims about CAFOs.”
Government attorneys for USDA, however, mostly responded to claims with statements like this: “To the extent, a response is required, Federal Defendants deny the allegations.”
Also in response to the complaint, the government does argue that the Court lacks jurisdiction over some of the Plaintiff’s claims, that some or all of the Plaintiff lacks standing to bring the case and that some or all of the Plaintiffs have failed to exhaust their administrative remedies. The judge should dismiss the complaint, according to USDA’s attorneys.
Those other Plaintiffs include a mix of state-level, nonprofits for small farms and rural areas in South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Indiana. Also included are White River Waterkeeper, an Arkansas group that advocates for water near CAFOs, and the Association of Irritated Residents in California.
Currently, the parties are arguing about whether another federal case involving Food and Water Watch duplicates this one.
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