NRDC lawsuit settlement will help protect water from factory farm waste

We know this for sure about the 300 million tons of manure produced by U.S. factory farms every year:  It is disgusting, and a lot of it is winding up in our water.

A settlement agreement, signed late yesterday in a lawsuit brought by NRDC and our coalition partners against EPA, is going to help us learn a lot more.  As part of the agreement, EPA will initiate an investigation of the livestock industry by proposing to require all concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) – aka factory farms – to report missing information EPA needs to start cleaning up our waterways and protecting public health, such as:

  • Location of factory farms
  • Number and types of animals
  • Manure storage and disposal methods

 Believe or not – the EPA and the public don’t have this basic information for thousands of factory farms because historically many have been able to avoid pollution control requirements (in the form of Clean Water Act permits) intended to protect our waterways from the pollution they create. EPA needs to know where all of the country’s factory farms are actually located, and what they are doing with the stream of manure they create, in order to curtail water pollution from them. Thanks to the settlement agreement reached yesterday, that will finally start to happen.

In the absence of permits, and the reports and recordkeeping they involve, keeping tabs on factory farms and what they’re doing with all that manure has required heroic efforts from private citizens, like Lynn Henning, this year’s winner of the Goldman Prize for grassroots environmental activism (check out the video about her below, but warning:  if you’re faint of heart—or just ate—you may want to skip it, as well as the next few paragraphs.)

Individual factory farms can produce as much waste as a medium-sized city.  Worse, the waste produced by a factory farm is much more concentrated but almost never treated.  And as anyone who has ever driven past one knows, the smell can be overwhelming.

In liquid form, it contains more than 130 human pathogens, including E. coli, salmonella, pfiesteria and more. Factory farms often get rid of this manure by spraying it on fields, purportedly as fertilizer.  When rain causes that manure to run off or it drains into surface waters, it can cause massive fishkills and parasitic infections.  It can also harm aquatic habitats—the nitrogen and phosphorus compounds in factory farm runoff contribute to the choking “dead zones” in places like the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay.

Some factory farms, such as chicken factories, store their manure in dry waste piles.  The manure in those piles winds up in surface waters in a variety of ways, but it also winds up in the air, where it can be inhaled.

Not grossed out yet? Here are a few allegations of factory farm pollution that EPA’s rulemaking record contained:

  • An egg factory farm in northern Utah deliberately spilled 2 million gallons of dead chickens, chicken manure, and other waste to prevent its waste tank from blowing out as a result of excess rainfall.
  • In 1995 alone, two separate hog factory farms in North Carolina breached their manure lagoons (just what it sounds like – essentially ponds of animal waste used to store them), each spilling 25 million gallons of manure into nearby waterways.
  • The manager of a Nevada dairy factory farms opened a manure valve for two days, letting 1.7 million gallons of waste run onto an already saturated field for two days.

I’ve seen the livestock industry get incredibly aggressive in the face of criticism for its environmental footprint. Take, for example, the outsized response of the Farm Bureau and others to a blog post by an EPA intern – a college sophomore – explaining her choice to eat vegetarian in light of a variety of environmental concerns raised by livestock production, including water pollution. You can imagine – if this is the reaction to an intern’s blog post, push-back against stricter regulation is inevitable.

The best way to counter it is with good information that supports actions to curb pollution.  Yesterday's settlement—the latest victory for NRDC in many years of litigation to force EPA to regulate factory farm pollution adequately (we’ve forced them to revise their rules twice in the past decade)—will help EPA regulators and the public get comprehensive information on a large part of the industry that has been flying under the radar, and will empower them to address the water pollution concerns they identify. After all, this is critical to ensure the water that Americans drink, swim and play in is safe, clean, and manure-free.