Rule Threatens Public Health, Conservation Groups Say

NEW YORK (February 28, 2005) -- A 2003 Bush administration farm pollution rule violates the Clean Water Act by allowing large-scale livestock farms to apply animal waste to land without federal or state oversight or public input, the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York held today. The ruling in Waterkeeper Alliance v. EPA resulted from a lawsuit filed by three conservations groups, which charged that the rule shielded factory farms from liability for damage caused by animal waste pollution.

The groups, Waterkeeper Alliance, Sierra Club and NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), filed the suit in March 2003. The Environmental Protection Agency had issued the rule in February 2003 under a 1992 consent decree between the agency and NRDC. It went into effect in April of that year. (For a copy of the court ruling, contact Elizabeth Heyd at eheyd@nrdc.org.)

"These regulations were the product of a conspiracy between a lawless industry and compliant public officials in cahoots to steal the public trust," said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., president of the Waterkeeper Alliance and an NRDC senior attorney. "I'm grateful that the court has taken the government and the barons of corporate agriculture to the woodshed for a well-earned rebuke."

Thirty years ago, Congress identified concentrated animal feeding operations as point sources of water pollution to be regulated under the Clean Water Act's water pollution permitting program. The scale of animal production at individual operations has dramatically increased since then, and factory farms today produce 500 million tons of manure a year. In December 2000, EPA proposed a new rule with initiatives that would have protected the environment, but the Bush administration stripped them from the final rule after agribusinesses objected.

Under the Bush administration rule, animal factories were able to continue to dump millions of gallons of liquefied manure into open pits, called lagoons, and then spray the liquid over fields. Typically the manure runs off the fields into nearby streams or seeps into underground water supplies, polluting water with viruses, bacteria, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and excessive nutrients.

The court found that:

  • The rule illegally allowed factory farms to write the part of their permits that limit spraying manure on fields without state or federal review or approval--and without notifying the public.

  • The EPA had failed to require factory farms to use the necessary technological controls to reduce bacteria and other pathogens from their pollution.

  • The rule violated the Clean Water Act by exempting factory farms from meeting water quality standards.

"The court agreed that polluters can't be trusted to write their own permits," said Melanie Shepherdson, an attorney with NRDC's water program. "They have to be held accountable because they pose such a major threat to public health."

"The court agreed that there is a better way than the Bush administration's plan," said Eric Huber, a Sierra Club attorney. "When technology and existing law can keep animal waste out of our rivers, why should Americans have to settle for a plan that puts polluters before the public?"