Agency Cowed by Factory Farm Lobby; Shirking Responsibility to Protect Public Health

WASHINGTON (June 22, 2006) -- The Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule today that would allow factory farms to decide for themselves if they should be regulated for polluting the nation's waterways with animal waste, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. NRDC experts said the agency's proposal to allow a regulated industry to determine when and where it is regulated is "extraordinary," and poses a clear threat to public health. (For the EPA's proposed rule, go to www.epa.gov/npdes/afo/revisedrule.)

"Factory farms are fouling waterways in at least 29 states, threatening drinking water supplies and waterways where Americans fish and swim," said Melanie Shepherdson, a staff attorney with NRDC's Water and Coastal Program. "We can't reduce and prevent pollution when the EPA is giving polluters a free pass. The agency is abdicating its responsibility to protect the public."

Today's announcement was in response to a February 2005 U.S. Court of Appeals decision that ordered the agency to revise a 2003 rule controlling factory farm water pollution. That ruling resulted from a lawsuit filed by NRDC, the Sierra Club and the Waterkeeper Alliance that challenged the 2003 rule, maintaining that it was not strong enough. The Farm Bureau and several agricultural trade organizations also filed suit, but they wanted to force the agency to weaken the rule.

More than 30 years ago, Congress identified factory farms -- called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) -- as water pollution point sources to be regulated under the Clean Water Act's permit program. Today, most factory farms still do not have Clean Water Act permits. In 2003, the EPA estimated there were 15,500 large and medium-sized livestock operations, and the Government Accountability Office estimated that states had issued Clean Water Act permits to only 4,500 of them.

To address this problem, the EPA issued a new rule in 2003 requiring all factory farms to apply for a permit based on their "potential" to discharge. Agribusiness challenged this provision and the Court of Appeals agreed it was too broad. Today's proposed rule would require facilities that discharge or propose to discharge waste to obtain a permit, but it does not define what constitutes a discharge and would leave it up to facilities to decide if they need a permit.

"The EPA has been completely cowed by the factory farm lobby," said Jon Devine, an NRDC senior attorney. "Instead of doing its job to regulate polluters, it chickened out and decided to let polluters police themselves -- if they want to."

Factory farms, which generate 500 million tons of manure annually, now dominate animal production across the country. These large-scale operations routinely over-apply liquid waste on land, which runs off into surface water, killing fish, spreading disease, and contaminating drinking water supplies. The EPA estimates that pathogens, such as E. coli, are responsible for 35 percent of the nation's impaired river and stream miles, and factory farms are one of the most common pathogen sources.

The 2005 Court of Appeals ruling also ordered the EPA to devise a standard to reduce or eliminate factory farm pathogen discharges, but today's proposed rule would reduce pathogens by at most 46 percent. According to NRDC, there are technologies available today that can reduce pathogens by more than 99 percent.

"The EPA needs to require factory farms to keep bacteria, viruses and parasites in animal waste from getting into our waters and making people sick," said Shepherdson.