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EPA'S New Water Guidelines Will Let Factory Farms Off the Hook

WASHINGTON (May 23, 2000) - This week the Environmental Protection Agency will release new Clean Water Act permit guidelines for livestock factory farms that will not protect the public from animal waste pollution, say national and local environmental organizations.

The 1970 Clean Water Act requires feedlots to obtain pollution-control permits, but EPA never implemented that part of the law, allowing most of the 20,000 largest livestock facilities to dump manure on land with no federal oversight. The new guidelines were supposed to ensure that these facilities obtain permits, the environmentalists say, but they are likely to provide new loopholes allowing factory farms to continue to avoid federal permitting. Additionally, the guidelines will likely recommend that most factory farms be issued general permits that exclude public input on pollution controls for specific facilities.

"The new guidelines should ensure that factory farms around the country clean up their pollution. Instead, they will allow factory farms to continue to despoil our rivers, lakes and streams," says Robbin Marks, a senior resource specialist at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). "EPA must abandon this charade and write new rules with some teeth. We want real safeguards."

Specifically, the new guidelines are likely to exempt factory farms from federal permits if they voluntarily write their own pollution management plans. "Plans are not the same as permits," says Jeff Skelding of the Ohio Environmental Council. "They are unenforceable and secret.

"We were hoping that EPA would send a strong message that all factory farms must have permits," Skelding adds. "Our state program already is too weak, but the new guidelines will give the green light to weaken it further."

The guidelines are likely to require factory farms that have had manure spills to obtain permits. But many pollution problems at factory farms are more subtle than the million-gallon spills that attract public attention, says NRDC. Pollution problems from land application often go undetected by local authorities or the public.

In addition, the guidelines likely will allow factory farms to avoid getting permits by promising they will not pollute waterways. "If a factory farm claims that it doesn't pollute and is exempted from permitting, it doesn't have to monitor or report pollution problems," says Merritt Frey, an NRDC policy analyst. "So there is no way to verify that the facility is not polluting. The public and regulatory agencies won't know about problems until something disastrous like a fish kill occurs."

States that document manure application problems have discovered serious problems. For example, from 1992 to 1997 there were 51 manure spills in Iowa's streams, rivers and lakes that were largely caused by applying liquid manure on fields.

A permit program that would truly protect the environment must require:

  • all factory farms to obtain individual Clean Water Act permits. Individual permits would allow communities surrounding factory farms to help establish environmental protections for specific facilities.
  • that manure storage and application measures protect the environment.
  • factory farms to monitor the water quality surrounding their facilities and publicly report their findings.

"Family farmers are facing economic ruin at the hands of factory farm production," says Pam Hansen of the Campaign for Family Farms. "Since 1986, two of every three hog farmers have gone out of business. To ensure that family farmers have a future, factory farms must pay the costs of the environmental harm they cause."

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 400,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

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