Seeking Industrial Livestock Information is Not "Extreme." It's Needed to Protect U.S. Waterways and Human Health

Over a period of several months, NRDC and the Pew Charitable Trusts have successfully pressed EPA for information it has collected on a major source of water pollution –large livestock operations, often known as factory farms or concentrated animal feeding operations (or “CAFOs”).  The information was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

In response to the disclosure of the public information, The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association issued a statement attacking the disclosure, labeling our groups as “extremists,” and claiming that making the information public would pose a threat to the safety of CAFO operations.

CAFOs confine animals on an industrial scale and produce massive amounts of manure and other waste that can pollute waterways with dangerous contaminants. Liquid waste applied to land can run off into waterways, killing fish, spreading disease, and contaminating drinking water. EPA estimates that livestock operations that confine animals are responsible for impairing over 25,000 miles of U.S. rivers and streams and over 269,000 acres of lakes, reservoirs and ponds. These facilities have been an EPA enforcement priority for many years, but increased enforcement attention has not eliminated CAFO pollution; instead, according to the EPA, “[d]espite more than 35 years of regulating CAFOs, reports of water quality impacts from large animal feeding operations persist.”

NRDC is working to hold EPA accountable for implementing the Clean Water Act, which prohibits CAFOs and other industries from discharging pollutants into the waters of the U.S. without a permit.  It is not surprising that the CAFO industry, which generates approximately three times the waste that humans in the U.S. produce, would rather keep information about their waste from their neighbors and concerned citizens.

Obtaining and scrutinizing the information EPA has collected is critical because data on industrial livestock operations and their pollution footprint have historically been variable, with good information available in some places or for certain kinds of facilities, but no comprehensive inventory has been done of CAFOs nationwide.  At conservation groups’ urging, EPA initiated an effort to survey U.S. CAFOs, but abandoned it in favor of a plan to collect existing information from states.  Concerned that these data would be incomplete and inconsistent, but also dedicated to shedding light on this industry, NRDC and Pew filed a FOIA request to obtain and review the information EPA had collected.

As noted by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) in a September 2008 report, “no federal agency collects accurate and consistent data on the number, size, and location of CAFOs.”  Likewise, although EPA has made prior attempts to “compil[e] data from its regions in an effort to develop information on the number of permitted CAFOs nationwide,” GAO “determined that these data are inconsistent and inaccurate and do not provide necessary information on the characteristics of these CAFOs.” GAO found that, "without a systematic and coordinated process for collecting and maintaining accurate and complete information on the number, size, and location of permitted CAFOs, EPA does not have the information that it needs to effectively regulate these operations.”

The data requested by NRDC and Pew will provide a greater understanding of what is known about industrial livestock facilities and help identify ways that safeguards against CAFO pollution can be improved to protect human health and the environment. For example, EPA estimates that only approximately 40 percent of the 20,000 CAFOs in the United States have obtained discharge permits. Data about all CAFOs, regardless of their permit status, will help identify areas and water bodies that are at risk of future pollution and develop strategies to prevent that pollution from occurring.

The data requested by NRDC and Pew are public records, and a request to access them is anything but “extreme.”  What’s extreme is that the American people don’t even know where many livestock factories are, much less how they handle their waste or what their impact is on local waterways.

The most irresponsible charge made by NCBA is that providing this information to public interest groups somehow may facilitate criminal acts against facilities; that accusation is entirely unwarranted. NRDC and Pew condemn such illegal activities and reject the notion that transparency will encourage them.  In fact, the location of many livestock operations is already public information, which undermines the industry’s suggestion that providing information to the public about other facilities creates security risks. Several state governments already offer data about CAFOs, including their locations, on their websites. For example, both North Carolina and Missouri have facility information online.  Likewise, aerial imagery that includes industrial livestock operations can be easily found on map-based websites.  Keeping information about additional sites under wraps undermines good faith efforts to understand the industry and its waste handling practices.

Public accessibility to government records is crucial to achieving a transparent and functional democratic system.  And getting basic operating information about an industry that generates approximately 360 billion pounds of waste every year is crucial to a functional system to protect public health and the environment from pollution.

It’s troubling that NCBA disparaged our organizations for trying to learn more about pollution sources.  NRDC is a non-profit public interest organization, staffed by leading scientists, policy experts and attorneys who are dedicated to protecting public health and the environment.  We work collaboratively with farmers and agricultural leaders across a range of projects.  We don’t always agree with the agricultural stakeholders we work with, but we do value mutual respect.

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