New Rules Aim to Cut Pollution From Factory Farms

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, December 16, 2002 (ENS) - New federal regulations aimed at reducing water pollution from the nation's largest livestock operations will do little to control runoff, conservation groups said as the rules were released today. The new regulations come on the heels of last week's release of a study suggesting that the federal government must do more to control emissions from animal factory farms.

At a press conference this morning, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Christie Whitman announced that the agency is working with the agricultural community to control water pollution from large livestock operations while keeping American agriculture economically viable. Whitman, joined by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Ann Veneman, announced a final rule that will require all large concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to obtain permits that will ensure they protect America's waters from wastewater and manure.

The rule is intended to control runoff from agricultural feeding operations, preventing billions of pounds of pollutants from entering America's waters. It replaces a 25 year old rule developed after Congress identified CAFOs as point sources of water pollution that should be regulated under the Clean Water Act's water pollution permitting program.

pigs

Large livestock operations like this hog farm produce tons of runoff polluted with animal wastes. (Photo by Gene Alexander, courtesy USDA)
Since the 1970s, the scale of animal production at individual operations has increased dramatically. About 500 million tons of manure are now generated each year by an estimated 238,000 livestock operations. From 1982 to 1997 these large livestock operations have grown by 51 percent, with some of the largest facilities having capacities exceeding a million animals.

"This new rule is an historic step forward in our efforts to make America's waters cleaner and purer," said Whitman. "It will help reduce what has been a growing problem - the fact that animal waste generated by concentrated animal feeding operations poses an increasing threat to the health of America's waters."

Environmental groups, however, said the new rule will allow agricultural businesses to continue to foul the nation's waterways with animal waste. The EPA was required to finalize the new rule by December 15, 2002 under a 1992 judicial consent decree between the EPA and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

"The final rule puts polluters first," said Melanie Shepherdson, an attorney with NRDC's Clean Water Project. "The Bush EPA gave agribusiness increased protection from liability for polluting our waterways. It's a sweet deal for factory farm polluters, but it stinks for the rest of us."

The manure management practices required by the new rule are aimed at maximizing the use of manure as a resource for agriculture while reducing harm to the environment, said Agriculture Secretary Veneman.

cows

Livestock operations can send manure and urinary wastes into streams. (Photo courtesy EPA)
"The new rule is unique in that it comes after unprecedented cooperation between EPA and USDA to find a way to help producers meet their own and society's goals for environmental quality and profitability," Veneman said. "USDA stands ready to provide assistance in an incentive-based approach combining information and education, research and technology transfer, direct technical assistance and financial assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and other farm bill programs."

The new rule applies to about 15,500 livestock operations across the country. Under the new rule all large CAFOs will be required to apply for a permit, submit an annual report, and develop and follow a plan for handling manure and wastewater.

Large CAFOs are defined in the rule as operations raising more than 1,000 cattle, 700 dairy cows, 2,500 swine, 10,000 sheep, 125,000 chickens, 82,000 laying hens, and 55,000 turkeys in confinement.

Under the rule, the public will have increased access to information about agricultural pollution through annual CAFO reports. The regulation places controls on land applications of manure and wastewater, eliminates current permitting exemptions and expands coverage over different types of animals.

The rule eliminates the exemption that excuses CAFOs from applying for permits if they only discharge during large storms. The regulations also eliminates the exemption for operations that raise chickens with dry manure handling systems, and extends coverage to immature swine and immature dairy cows.

noctiluca

Nutrients in agricultural runoff can lead to spectacular algae blooms, like this noctiluca algae bloom off the coast of California. The white object in the photo is a ship. (Photo by Peter Franks, courtesy Scripps Institution of Oceanography)
About 4,500 CAFOs are now covered by permits. Under the new rule, EPA expects that up to 11,000 additional facilities will be required to apply for permits by 2006.

Large scale animal factories, which raise thousands of animals and produce 220 billion gallons of manure each year, now dominate animal production across the country. These large scale operations over apply liquid waste on land, which runs off into surface water, killing fish, spreading disease, and contaminating drinking water supplies. They also emit toxic fumes into the air.

Under the Clinton administration, the EPA proposed a new rule featuring several initiatives that would have further protected the environment, said Ken Midkiff, director of the Sierra Club's factory farm campaign. However, the Bush administration stripped them from the final rule after agribusinesses complained, he said.

"The Bush administration is perpetuating a system where corporate agribusiness can reap huge profits from factory farming and avoid responsibility for the pollution they generate," said Midkiff. "Why should taxpayers have to pay for the mess they make?"

Conservation groups say the new rules will legalize continued discharges of runoff contaminated with nitrogen, phosphorus, bacteria and metals into already polluted rivers and streams. These critics charges that the new regulations fail to update technology standards to tighten controls on water pollution, allowing factory farms to continue discharging raw waste, and allow factory farms to write their own permit conditions.

erosion

Agricultural runoff contains pollutants including nutrients, sediment, animal wastes, salts and pesticides (Photo by Jack Dykinga, courtesy Agricultural Research Service)
States are being given flexibility in implementing the CAFO rule under the new rule. For example, states will retain the authority to determine the type of permit - general or individual - to be issued to a given operation, and to tailor nutrient management plans for CAFOs. States may also authorize alternative performance standards for existing and new CAFOs to promote the use of innovative technologies.

Under the new rules, corporations that own the livestock will be shielded from liability for the environmental damage they cause, critics charge, and new legal loopholes will shield factory farms from liability for animal wastes running off the land into waterways.

"The federal technology guidelines and permitting rules announced today allow the continued use of rudimentary open air lagoons and the land application of animal waste, despite the fact that North Carolina and other livestock producing states have banned these outdated waste systems on new farms," said Dan Whittle, senior attorney with Environmental Defense.

"The real solution to air and water pollution caused by factory farms lies in requiring owners and operators to use better waste treatment technologies, which are readily available and affordable," Whittle added. "The new EPA regulations fail to recognize this basic issue in controlling factory farm pollution."

Whittle referred to a report released last week by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that raises concerns regarding federal action to identify and control pollution coming from CAFOs. The report says that neither the EPA nor the USDA has devoted the necessary financial or technical resources to estimate emissions from animal feeding operations accurately and to develop mitigation strategies.

The report calls for the two agencies to set up a joint council to coordinate and oversee short and long term research in this area.

turkeys

Turkey farms raising more than 55,000 turkeys in confinement will be covered by the new regulations. (Photo courtesy USDA)
"The NAS report confirms that factory farms are polluting the air we breathe and the waters in which we swim and fish and provides a scientifically sound method to measure environmental impacts," said Joe Rudek, senior scientist with Environmental Defense, who reviewed the report for NAS. "In the past, industry has hidden behind claims of insufficient science to delay action. Now the industry's excuse for inaction has evaporated."

The NAS report identified ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, particulate matter, nitrous oxide and odor as major contributors to air pollution. Atmospheric deposition of ammonia nitrogen into waterways is also a major source of pollution, particularly in coastal waters, the report noted.

The committee that wrote the report said EPA should focus first on those pollutants that pose the greatest risk to the environment and public health. Ammonia is a major concern because it can be redeposited elsewhere via rainfall, contaminating the ground and water where it falls, the committee said.

Nitrous oxide and methane are greenhouse gases that affect global climate change. At the local level, odor from livestock farms is the most serious concern, followed by emissions of particulate matter - tiny particles that can aggravate respiratory ailments in humans.

The committee recommended that the EPA and USDA take immediate steps to reduce air pollution from CAFOs.

hogs

More than 10 million hogs are kept at factory farms in North Carolina alone. (Photo courtesy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
"Our recommendations provide the federal government and the livestock industry not only with ways to estimate the amount of emissions generated by livestock operations, but also with practical and science based strategies aimed at addressing the global problem of these emissions and their potential impact on the public and the environment," said committee chair Perry Hagenstein, an independent consultant on resource economics and policy.

Today's regulations from the EPA and USDA do not address air pollution from CAFOs, and critics warn they do not go far enough to counter the impacts of agricultural water pollution.

"Factory farms discharge a staggering amount of contaminants into the atmosphere, and the EPA regulations fail to seriously address air emissions and their well documented impacts on public health and water quality," said Whittle. "The new rules are a major step backward."

For more information on the new CAFO regulations, visit: http://www.epa.gov/npdes/caforule

To read the NAS report online, visit: http://www.nap.edu/books/0309087058/html/