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Policy Problems and Recommendations
Excerpted from the report: Americas Animal Factories
Natural Resources Defense Council

The nation's federal and state regulatory systems for protecting environmental health have failed to keep pace with the rapid growth of factory farms. When Congress passed the Clean Water Act (CWA) almost 27 years ago, it had the foresight to identify feedlots as an industrial source of pollution and to require that feedlots be regulated as strictly as other industries. However, EPA has failed to enforce these statutory requirements and the implementation of the regulations has been pockmarked with loopholes. According to a 1995 General Accounting Office Report, in 1992 only 30 percent of the 6,600 farms that were large enough to be subject to federal permit requirements actually obtained a permit under the Clean Water Act. To a greater or lesser extent, states have attempted to step into the void created by an ineffective federal approach. However, as this report will illustrate, the states have failed to curb factory farm pollution.

Pollution Problems

This report describes environmental pollution from animal factories in 30 states. In addition, livestock pollution is a problem or threat in many more states, including Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, New Mexico and New York. The combination of industry consolidation toward factory farming, inadequate technology to control manure pollution and lax regulatory controls has resulted in serious pollution problems across the country. Some examples from this report:

  • In North Carolina, a hog manure lagoon burst in 1995, creating the biggest hog-waste spill on record -- 25 million gallons -- killing as many as 10 million fish and closing 364,000 acres of coastal wetlands to shell-fishing.
  • In Indiana, the LaGrange County Health Department identified six miscarriages among women living near hog farms. Their drinking water wells had been contaminated with unsafe levels of nitrates.
  • In California's Central Valley, dairy farmers have discovered their cows are aborting calves after drinking water from wells contaminated with nitrates. Farmers in this, the top milk-producing region in the nation, have been forced to dig deeper wells in search of water safe for their own cows to drink.
  • In Torrington, Wyoming, cattle operations are possibly linked to nitrate levels in the groundwater that exceed the safe drinking-water standard. High concentrations of nitrates in drinking water can cause "blue-baby syndrome," a potentially fatal disease in infants that damages their red blood cells' oxygen-carrying ability.
  • In North Carolina, 34 percent of wells located next to poultry and hog farms had elevated nitrate levels and 10 percent were contaminated above the health standard for safe drinking water, a state health agency found in a survey of more than 1,000 wells.
  • In Minnesota, more than 50 families complained of nausea, vomiting and other flu-like symptoms associated with toxic hydrogen sulfide gas after 17 factory hog farms moved into their county. The state environmental agency found that half of factory farms of all animal types tested in the area exceeded safety standards for the gas -- by as much as 50 times the state standard.
  • In Missouri, swine factory farms have been the biggest culprit in polluting 150 miles of Missouri's streams, causing 61 fish kills and killing over 500,000 fish.
  • Pollution from nutrients contained in animal manure, namely phosphorus and nitrogen, is one of the Chesapeake Bay's most serious problems and has led to reduced harvests of fish and shellfish. On the Eastern Shore of Virginia, close to one-third of the nitrogen and two-fifths of the phosporus nutrients entering the Chesapeake Bay from that region are attributed to animal waste pollution. In Maryland, toxic Pfiesteria outbreaks have occurred in the Bay due to excessive nutrient loading from animal waste and farm runoff.

State Programs Have Failed To Curb Factory Farm Pollution

State attempts to deal with animal factories are inconsistent. Some state programs for dealing with these animal operations are voluntary and some are mandatory. Some deal solely with manure management, some deal solely with manure storage and some programs focus on both. None of the state programs we evaluate have been effective so far in curbing factory farm pollution. Problems common among state programs include the following:

  • States continue to take aggressive steps to attract factory farms and grant these operations government benefits which were originally designed to help family farms survive. While five states -- North Carolina, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Missouri and Kentucky -- have established some form of moratorium on new livestock factories at one time or another, many other states are attempting to attract and retain them. Kansas granted Seaboard Farms, Inc., one of the nation's fastest growing pork producers, the right to issue $9.5 million in tax-exempt bonds toward the cost of building manure lagoons in its state. Many states, such as Wyoming, grant these massive operations agricultural tax breaks.
  • Several states have either no permitting system in place at all or have systems that, in fact or in practice, rely on voluntary compliance. Indiana's factory farms can safely ignore state requirements for treatment of manure because the state relies on voluntary letters of approval. Pennsylvania, Colorado and Alabama have no permitting program, though programs are in the works. Illinois regulates only livestock operations with animal waste lagoons but not those with underground manure storage tanks, which are now the norm in Illinois. Some of these have leaked. California's Central Valley issues permits only after an operation is caught polluting.
  • Fast-track permits are given to factory farms. Almost every state has adopted the type of easy-to-get permit known as a "general permit" under the federal Clean Water Act. It essentially grants factory farms a green light to operate with minimal controls on pollution. Under general permits, the states routinely accept at face value the factory farm owners' assurances that the feedlot can comply with existing statewide requirements. The state often does not make individual visits to the site to see if the applicant can actually comply or if the factory farm might pose unforeseen pollution threats. The permits are not site-specific. General permits do not provide citizens with notice of proposed factory farms or an opportunity to comment on the pollution controls needed to protect their communities. Nor do they require monitoring.
  • Lagoons and spray-field systems are the norm. Despite the poor environmental record of factory farm lagoons and the documented problems with liquid manure spraying, most states continue to allow factory farms to rely upon this antiquated waste treatment technology. North Carolina passed legislation that required the State Department of Agriculture to develop a plan to phase out lagoons and sprayfields, but the Department's plan has failed to comply with this mandate.
  • Enforcement of statutory requirements and penalties tends to be weak. Most states do not have aggressive compliance programs. Instead, many agencies respond and inspect operations only when citizens complain or when fish kills and other problems are documented. Some, such as South Dakota, sometimes fail to respond even then. Many states are reluctant to penalize factory farm polluters, so penalties are waived, reduced or not meaningful to begin with. For example, feedlot operators in Mississippi are often able to negotiate reduced fines with state officials after they have been found guilty of polluting.
  • Water quality monitoring by states and livestock operators is rare. Industrial pollution permits under the Clean Water Act usually require industries to monitor their discharges and periodically report the information to the EPA. Yet neither the EPA nor the states has applied these requirements to the animal factory industry, because these facilities are not supposed to discharge -- a presumption that cannot be confirmed without a requirement that water quality be monitored. Only a few states appear to require routine water quality monitoring. Moreover, some states have failed to adequately monitor surface water quality near factory farms. Often citizens have had to step in and do the testing themselves. In Missouri, more than 1,000 citizens have formed their own "Stream Teams" to measure water pollution.
  • State programs fail to deal adequately with the siting of lagoons. Many states now have setback rules requiring that new manure lagoons be situated a minimum distance from homes and rivers, although thousands of existing factory farms are exempt from recently imposed setbacks. But even these requirements are inadequate because lagoons are still allowed to locate on land sitting just above water sources, in floodplains and in coastal and other wetlands, and adjacent to wildlife refuges and other sensitive locations. For example, Kentucky and Tennessee allow livestock operations to locate on "karst" topography -- geological limestone formations pockmarked with sinkholes, which provide pollutants easy access to groundwater.
  • The corporations that control factory farms are able to evade responsibility for pollution controls. For most poultry operations and increasingly for pork operations, large corporations contract with smaller producers to operate factory farms. The corporations own the animals but contract with the smaller producers to raise them. Under the permits issued by most states, the small producer holds the permit obliging it to abide by environmental restrictions. The corporation has no obligation to contribute financially to cleanups or to pollution controls. Only one state, Kentucky, requires some, but not equal shared financial and legal responsibility on the part of the corporation and the contract producer.
  • Local control is restricted or under-utilized. Some states have significantly restricted the authority of local governments to control the problem, while some localities have failed to use the powers they have been granted. Some states, such as Iowa, have prohibited localities from establishing controls on factory farms. In other states, localities have the right to utilize zoning and other tools to prevent factory farm pollution. In states such as Missouri and North Carolina, certains localities that tried to impose controls have faced the threat of costly lawsuits from factory farm corporations.
  • States have failed to devote adequate staff resources to their feedlot programs. Compliance with regulatory programs is all but voluntary when there are almost no inspectors on the job. Colorado and Montana each have one part-time inspector, rendering their enforcement of feedlot pollution virtually nonexistent.
  • Poultry operations are generally unregulated. In many states, poultry operations are not regulated. The over-application of poultry litter to cropland leads to pollution from phosphorus, a nutrient that accumulates in the soil. Manure runoff produced by rain or melting snow causes phosphorus to pollute nearby bodies of water. The misguided rationale used by states to exempt poultry factories from their regulatory systems altogether is that the litter is dry and therefore does not count as a discharge pollutant. Major poultry-producing states such as West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Virginia and Arkansas subscribe to this view. Maryland, Tennessee and Alabama have plans to include poultry operations in the regulatory system, but implementation has not yet begun.
  • Land application requirements are inadequate. Most states require that manure spread as fertilizer be applied at rates that do not exceed the crops' ability to absorb nitrogen but they ignore the quantity of phosphorus -- another nutrient -- present in manure. Phosphorus accumulates in the soil and excess levels run off. More land area is needed to safely absorb this long-lived nutrient. Only Maryland has established rates for land-application of manure based on phosphorus that will be part of the state's regulatory requirements. The remaining states base their land-application requirements on nitrogen for regulatory purposes. In addition, no state restricts application of manure based on heavy metals. Many states allow manure to be applied to the land in a manner that allows polluted runoff to occur, such as application of manure on snow. One state, Ohio, allows at least one major factory farm to claim that its off-site manure application is a "trade secret," and thus the amount of manure applied to the land can never be known.
  • Only a handful of states have regulated air pollution. Harmful hydrogen-sulfide and ammonia gases are emitted from open-air lagoons, dry litter storage facilities and aerial spraying of manure. While it appears that some states have the power to regulate air emissions from factory farms, Minnesota, Illinois and North Dakota are the only states that have used their power to so. Minnesota has established safety standards for hydrogen-sulfide, a toxic gas that can cause vomiting, diarrhea and other flu-like symptoms. That state's initial testing of emissions from feedlot operations found that state health standards for hydrogen sulfide were being violated in half of the facilities tested.
  • Public information about factory farms is lacking. Many state permitting programs allow livestock operations to keep records tracking their compliance with manure management pollution controls on-site and inaccessible to the public view. This makes it extremely difficult for citizens to find out whether a factory farm they suspect of polluting is indeed fouling local waterways. In addition, there has been virtually no national reporting of state permitting activities relating to large feedlots. Most states have not been required to submit to EPA any information regarding permit violations, the number of facilities permitted or inspections conducted. The lack of data has meant that the public cannot assess how the state next door measures up.

Policy Recommendations

  • Establish a moratorium on Clean Water Act permits for new and expanding factory farms until all existing facilities have effective permits in place and standards are upgraded.
  • Ensure that local citizens are able to participate fully in the decision as to whether a factory farm is allowed to locate in their community. Give citizens the opportunity to help decide what pollution controls are needed on factory farms to protect their communities. Only individual site-specific permits can accomplish this -- followed by strict water quality monitoring by livestock operators and tough enforcement against Clean Water Act violators.
  • Ban massive open-air manure lagoons at factory farms, and the spraying of manure and urine into the air. Encourage environmentally friendly farming systems.
  • Prevent manure from running off the land.
  • The nation's water must be protected from poultry manure. Regulate chicken factories under the Clean Water Act in the same fashion as other animal operations.
  • Hold corporations that own livestock animals responsible for paying the costs of wate disposal and cleanup.
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