Friday, February 26, 2021

Patchwork government oversight makes it difficult to investigate, assess the impact of CAFO pollution

Factory farms produce prodigious amounts of animal waste that, when improperly managed, can contribute to air and water pollution, but inadequate or confusing government oversight makes it difficult to estimate the impact of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, on the environment and rural communities. 

"For decades, scientists have studied the effects that livestock farms with large animal concentrations in Iowa and other states have on regional water quality, as increasing amounts of waste flow into rivers and groundwater. Now activists and some lawmakers say emergency measures are needed to stop toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie, dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay, and threats to drinking water in rural communities. In some states, lawmakers worry about the future of smaller family farms," Alex Brown reports for Stateline. "Since last year, legislators in at least four states—Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota and Oregon—have proposed moratoriums on new or expanding farms that have more than a certain amount of livestock. None of the proposed bans is expected to become law this year, but the lawmakers say they aim to build momentum."

Efforts to regulate CAFOs face strong opposition from the livestock industry, "which notes that Americans rely on the operations for meat, dairy and eggs," Brown reports.

"CAFOs have been a point of contention between the livestock industry and environmental activists since they began to proliferate in the 1990s, overtaking small, pasture-feeding operations as the dominant form of animal agriculture in the U.S.," Madison McVan reports for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. "As the number of livestock producers has declined, the number of animals — hogs, cattle and poultry — has skyrocketed over the past several decades, in part due to rapid consolidation in the industry."

But in feeding that many animals, well, what goes in must come out. "One large CAFO can easily produce more than one million tons of manure per year — more than the yearly waste of a large city. ... The animal waste — usually stored in a lagoon or large tank before being spread as fertilizer in crop fields — contains nitrogen, phosphorus and sometimes growth hormones, antibiotics or pathogens such as E. coli. Rainwater can cause lagoons to spill over or wash the manure out of fields and into waterways," McVan reports. "But the full extent of the damage is hard to estimate because the federal government doesn’t keep track of where CAFOs are located. Instead, it’s up to states, researchers and activists to build their own databases." The task is even more difficult because each state has different rules for issuing CAFO permits, in addition to mandatory federal rules. 

In general, any animal feeding operation that discharges waste into federal waterways must get a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency or an EPA-designated state agency, McVan reports. CAFOs that get a permit are added to a database with basic information. The databases, which are considered public records and can be obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, allow agencies to quickly pinpoint the source of a pollution event, schedule inspections, and track problem areas.

"The federal government doesn’t require permits for facilities that claim they pose no risk to water quality, however, meaning thousands of CAFOs aren’t included in these databases. When the EPA tried to expand its reach to cover unpermitted facilities, judges ruled the agency cannot require all CAFOs to apply for a permit, effectively barring the federal government from creating a complete register," McVan reports. "Even before lawsuits blocked the EPA from collecting more data on CAFOs, the agency wasn’t adequately studying the environmental impact of their waste, according to the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan organization that audits federal agencies. The work of cataloguing these facilities and their environmental impact is left to states, academic researchers and activists, whose combined work has created a patchwork of maps and databases that shed light on the prevalence of CAFOs in the US."

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