New Factory Farm Rules Praised, Criticized

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, December 18, 2000 (ENS) - Tougher rules designed to regulate water pollution generated by large industrial farming operations were issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Friday. A top agency official told ENS that the new regulations will "do a much better job of protecting public health and the environment" from water pollution generated by factory farms, but a conservation advocacy group called the new measures "grossly inadequate."

The regulations are designed to mitigate water pollution caused by concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), large factory type farms that generate approximately 128 billion pounds of hog, chicken and cattle waste each year.

CAFOs typically store these wastes in vast fecal lagoons, which frequently overflow or spill into nearby waterways, killing fish, polluting drinking water supplies, and spreading antibiotic resistant bacteria into the environment.

hog lagoon

Factory farms store hog wastes in vast, open air fecal lagoons such as this one. The lagoons often leak or burst, polluting nearby waterways. The EPA's newly released regulations would do little to curb these types of practices. (Photo courtesy Hogwatch)

The proposed regulations would address those problems in a number of ways, said Charles Fox, the EPA's assistant administrator for water. For example, the regulations would close "some of the loopholes" that most factory farms have used to avoid obtaining Clean Water Act permits for their facilities, Fox said. Fox estimated that at present, only about 10 percent of factory farms in the country have enforceable Clean Water Act permits.

The EPA's proposed regulations would also force some factory farm operators to make modifications to their waste lagoons, Fox added. Under the proposal, waste lagoons used for dairy and beef cattle operations must be lined, and waste lagoons for hog operations will be required to be covered in order to prevent overflows caused by rain water, he explained.

The regulations will impose limits on the amount of animal wastes that CAFO operators can apply to fields. The limits will be set in accordance with the amount of manure "nutrients" that the crops and soil are capable of absorbing over several crop cycles, Fox explained.

hog waste

Untreated waste from a factory hog farm is applied to a field. The EPA's new regulations would impose certain limits on these types of practices. (Photo courtesy Hogwatch)

Under the new regulations, both local livestock growers and the corporations they work for will be held accountable for the legal disposal of animal wastes, Fox added.

"We want both of those entities working together under a permit structure to solve environmental problems," he said. "What this means for the industry is that they will now have to assume some responsibility for how their animals are being grown."

All told, the EPA's newly proposed CAFO regulations will cost the factory farm industry between $850 million to $940 million per year in terms of compliance costs, Fox said.

"Our analysis says that is affordable" for the CAFO industry, Fox said. "We really do think that [the regulations are] an aggressive step towards controlling these environmental problems."

But the EPA's proposals are not good enough for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a non-governmental group of scientists, lawyers and conservation specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Nancy Stoner, director of the group's Clean Water Project, called the EPA's proposals "grossly inadequate."

"It will be business as usual for industrialized agribusiness under the EPA's new rule," Stoner said. "The Clinton administration missed the opportunity to stop the severe environmental degradation and public health threats caused by factory farms."

Stoner and her colleagues at the NRDC have called on the EPA to phase out the waste lagoon system used by factory farms, alleging that the practice is both environmentally unsound and patently illegal.

She noted that in 1995, some 25 million gallons of manure spilled into the North Carolina's New River when a hog waste lagoon eight acres in size unexpectedly ruptured. The spill killed upwards of 10 million fish, and forced the closure of 364,000 acres of coastal wetlands to shellfishing, Stoner noted.

Runoff from factory farm waste in Maryland and North Carolina is believed to have contributed to outbreaks of pfiesteria piscicida, which causes skin irritation, short term memory loss and other cognitive problems in humans, Stoner noted. Pfiesteria has caused numerous fish kills along the Eastern Seaboard since the mid-1990s.

And aside from the stupefying odors that make life miserable for people living around them, CAFOS emit hydrogen sulfide and other gases that can cause serious medical problems for people, Stoner added.

Fox said the EPA did consider instituting a ban on the lagoon system, but he said the agency determined that such a move would not have been "affordable and feasible" for the factory farm industry.

"To ban or phase out lagoons created two major problems - there were not technologies readily apparent for the [CAFO] industry that were environmentally sound, and the costs were fairly significant for these other technologies," Fox said. "We made a determination as to the economic implications [of phasing out the lagoon system] - how many businesses will be dislocated or doors closed."

That argument does not wash with Leland Swenson, president of the National Farmer's Union. Swenson noted that because of its reliance on the fecal lagoon system, the CAFO industry has been able to drive more than 70 percent of small, independent hog farmers out of business in the last decade.

Swenson and the 300,000 member National Farmer's Union have joined forces with a coalition of environmental groups and private attorneys that have launched a legal assault against the corporate hog industry. The private groups said they are taking action because the EPA and other regulatory agencies are unable - or unwilling - to enforce the nation's environmental laws against the CAFO industry.

hog parlor

A factory hog farm in Georgia, with a large fecal waste lagoon on the right. These types of concentrated feeding operations have put many independent hog farmers out of business. (Photo by Gene Alexander, courtesy of the USDA)

Fox acknowledged that the livestock industry has undergone dramatic changes in the last two decades, creating a whole new class of environmental and legal problems for regulatory agencies to grapple with. He admitted that the newly proposed regulations will not address all of the environmental problems created by the burgeoning CAFO industry.

"We agree that we need to do a lot more to control pollution from these facilities across the country, but we think we have been taking aggressive steps to do just that," Fox said.

Asked if the newly proposed regulations will in any way mitigate the horrific stench emanating from factory farm facilities, Fox said, "In general, our regulations move the industry towards drier operations. Over time, there will be less reliance on the traditional lagoon technology. Our regulations will not control all of the odors from livestock operations. There are odors inherent in livestock operations that will continue to be present."

Environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council had also called on the EPA to institute more stringent restrictions for applying manure to farmland. The group maintained that such applications should only be allowed after the wastes had been treated in order to remove pathogens, antibiotic residues and toxins, and then only in amounts necessary to fertilize crops in one growing cycle.

fecal flood

A field overloaded with untreated hog waste. These wastes frequently run off into nearby waterways, killing fish and polluting sources of drinking water. (Photo courtesy Hogwatch)

Fox countered that the EPA's proposed regulations are adequate in that regard, emphasizing that all factory farms will be required to prepare and implement a site specific "permit nutrient plan" that will regulate the level of manure application.

The Sierra Club called the EPA's newly proposed regulations a "half step forward" in controlling the water pollution problems caused by the factory farming industry. The group said the proposed regulations contain a "gaping exemption" that allows CAFOs to spread an "unlimited amount" of untreated animal waste on croplands during rainy weather, a provision that in effect allows the continued pollution of the nation's waterways.

But the Sierra Club praised the EPA for the "co-permitting" system embodied in the new rules, which is designed to hold large corporations accountable for environmental problems caused by their local growers and contractors.

That provision will likely bring legal challenges by the CAFO industry, Fox said.

The EPA hopes to finalize the proposed CAFO rules by December 15, 2002. To view the rules and to comment on them, log on to: http://www.epa.gov/owm.afo.htm.