Just a month ago, the Environmental Protection Agency rejected revisions to the Clean Water Act submitted in 2017 for more effective regulations of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).

In response, the San Francisco-based Center for Food Safety and 12 other groups sued the EPA for its denial to regulate factory farm pollution. The court action heats the issue of cattle yards polluting nearby leafy green fields without a meaningful solution.  

The Center for Food Safety (CFS), Food & Water Watch (F&WW), and others petitioned the EPA in 2017, hoping to strengthen “factory farm” water pollution regulations under the Clean Water Act.  

After waiting more than five years, the EPA denied the petition, saying instead that it would form a Federal Advisory Committee next year to study the CAFO pollution problem and make recommendations for the agency. 

The Petitioners’ new lawsuit asks the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reject EPA’s denial and require it to immediately reconsider key reforms proposed in the 2017 petition that have the potential to expand and strengthen water pollution permits for concentrated animal feeding operations.

The groups suing EPA contend that agriculture is the nation’s leading polluter of rivers and lakes and that “factory farm” waste is responsible for a significant share, including at least 14,000 miles of rivers and 90,000 acres of polluted lakes and ponds nationwide. 

They cite a  2003 EPA estimate that CAFOs generated more than three times the amount of raw sewage than our human population; since then, the industry has grown by about 40 percent.

“Yet for over 50 years, most factory farms have evaded Clean Water Act regulation altogether,”  according to CFS’s statement. “EPA has acknowledged that it lacks basic information about where the nation’s CAFOs are located, let alone which are illegally polluting.” 

Fewer than one-third of the country’s 21,000-plus largest factory farms have National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits, it added.

“Yet again, EPA failed to curb pollution from animal factories, despite the Biden Administration’s commitment to environmental justice,” said Amy van Saun, senior attorney with the CFS. “Industrial animal agriculture must be treated like any other industry that causes real-world harm to communities; EPA cannot keep looking the other way when there are solutions and better ways of raising livestock without harm to our waterways.”

“The EPA response is disappointing,” said a Dakota Rural Action Board Member from Big Stone City, SD, Kathy Tyler. “I have personal experience with the impacts of unregulated manure application onto tiled farm fields that have caused significant pollution to streams and lakes. Millions of gallons of manure are applied to these fields without concern or oversight.”

“The Trom family farm in rural Dodge County, Minnesota is surrounded by 12 swine factory farms in a 3-mile radius,” said Sonja Trom Eayrs, attorney, rural advocate, farmer’s daughter, and co-founder of Dodge County Concerned Citizens in Minnesota. “Like many families in rural America, ours must contend with dangerous discharges from neighboring factory farms on a daily basis. We’ve contacted the regulators on several occasions, with little to no assistance. What do you do if the regulators will not regulate?”

“In the 1950s and 1960s many of Iowa’s rivers and lakes were essentially lifeless,” said Curt Nelson, Iowa CCI member from Cerro Gordo County. “The 1972 Clean Water Act began the cleanup process. Huge progress was made and life returned to our waters. Sadly the rise of large-scale CAFOs and over-application of other fertilizers has radically reversed that trend, and we are now seeing algae blooms and fish kills. This simply cannot continue.”

“For over a decade, the EPA has doggedly looked the other way as factory farms across the U.S. balloon in size and regional concentration, destroying watersheds and accelerating the decline of endangered species,” said Hannah Connor, Environmental Health Deputy Director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Denying this petition after the Supreme Court took an ax to the Clean Water Act is an appalling abdication of this administration’s clean water and environmental justice objectives. I’m hopeful the court will force the EPA to reconsider its dangerous failure to curb factory farm pollution.”

Petitioners are Food & Water Watch, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, Dakota Rural Action, Dodge County Concerned Citizens, Environmental Integrity Project, Helping Others Maintain Environmental Standards, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Kewaunee CARES, Land Stewardship Project, Midwest Environmental Advocates, and North Carolina Environmental Justice Network.

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