By Kelly Hunter Foster, Waterkeeper Alliance Senior Attorney, Melanie Benesh, EWG and Wicitra Mahotama, EWG
Oklahoma has a dangerous and widespread groundwater pollution problem caused by illegal discharges of toxic swine waste from industrial-scale swine Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs. But an investigation by Waterkeeper Alliance and EWG found that Scott Pruitt – the state’s attorney general since 2011 and President Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency – has not taken a single legal action to enforce Oklahoma’s stringent water quality laws and protect the public from a pollutant that can be deadly for infants.
State data shows that more than 40 percent of water samples taken last year from monitoring wells on Oklahoma swine CAFOs were contaminated with nitrates at levels that exceeded, sometimes by a great margin, federal standards under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Hog manure contains nitrates, other chemicals and bacteria that can foul surface water and groundwater if not managed properly. Nitrates are pollutants associated with so-called blue baby syndrome, or methemoglobinemia, which can cause permanent brain damage or death to infants from even short-term exposures. Pregnant or lactating women, adults with reduced stomach acidity, and people with enzyme deficiencies are also susceptible to methemoglobinemia.
High levels of nitrates have also been associated with bladder cancer in women, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, miscarriages and other adverse birth outcomes. In 2001, an EPA enforcement action against several swine CAFOs in Kansas reported that a woman living down-gradient from a facility with high nitrate levels had five miscarriages.
Pruitt was elected Oklahoma attorney general in 2010. Eleven years earlier, in 1999, the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, or ODAFF, began measuring, analyzing and tracking pollutant levels in groundwater monitoring wells near swine CAFOs. Annual samples are tested for nitrate-nitrogen, ammonium-nitrogen, total phosphorus, fecal coliform bacteria, pH and electrical conductivity.
Data collected in 2016, as in prior years, showed widespread groundwater contamination in wells located on swine CAFOs across Oklahoma, from the northeastern Panhandle to the state’s southeast region. The overall trend since 2000 was a clear increase in pollution generally. But the nitrate numbers are startling.
In 2016, the state took a total of 369 samples from CAFO monitoring wells. It found that 160 wells, about 43 percent, exceeded the legal limit of 10 parts per million, or ppm, of nitrates under the Safe Drinking Water Act. One groundwater monitoring well, at Smithfield Food’s Murphy Brown Tumbleweed-Sagebrush facility near Lavern, Okla., showed nitrate contamination at 174 ppm, more than 17 times the legal limit. As Figure 1 shows, many other facilities also had very high levels of nitrate pollution.
A table from ODAFF’s 2016 report also shows that 16 big swine operations have for many years discharged toxic hog waste unabated into Oklahoma’s groundwater, leading to extremely high nitrate levels. Across all CAFOs monitored, the average nitrate contamination concentration in 2016 was 13.78 ppm, well above levels that are safe for drinking water. In 2015, levels were even higher, with average measurements of 27.52 ppm – almost triple the federal legal limit.
Many Oklahomans who live near swine CAFOs get their drinking water from private groundwater wells, but may be unaware of the monitoring results or the need to test their wells to determine if they are safe from nitrates and other pollutants. Some public water supply groundwater wells are also in the vicinity of dense concentrations of swine CAFOs with unsafe nitrate levels. Many of the swine CAFOs with high nitrate measurements also sit atop groundwater the state has designated as particularly vulnerable to pollution.
Removing high levels of nitrates from drinking water is an expensive burden that could prove cost prohibitive for smaller rural wastewater treatment facilities, leaving the communities they serve vulnerable to ongoing contamination. For example, a rural water district in Major County, Okla. – about 100 miles northwest of Oklahoma City, where Seaboard Farms has a large swine CAFO called Fairview Sow #2 – has a history of Safe Drinking Water Act violations for nitrates. (Seaboard Farms also operates the Kansas CAFOs cited in the 2001 EPA enforcement order that reported the multiple miscarriages suffered by a woman living down-gradient from one of the facilities.)
Because of these risks, Oklahoma has strict laws regulating swine CAFOs and toxic hog waste discharges. Legislation signed in 1997 and 1998 mandates licensing these facilities, and requires swine waste to be stored in lined wastewater lagoons that are monitored through a leak detection system or groundwater monitoring wells. To prevent water pollution, the state also places stringent prohibitions on the discharge of waste from the waste lagoons and land application sites into surface water and groundwater.
But the strict laws have not driven down nitrate levels. As seen in Figure 2, state data shows that the annual average levels of nitrates have increased from 7.21 ppm in 2000 to 13.78 ppm in 2016.
The state Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry is responsible for permitting swine CAFOs, conducting inspections and sampling the monitoring wells. But the Oklahoma Attorney General has broad authority to enforce Oklahoma’s environmental laws to serve the public interest, including specific responsibilities for CAFOs.[i]
Conspicuously, on the list of environmental achievements he submitted to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Pruitt included no actions to stop or clean up groundwater pollution at the facilities, or any actions to enforce existing long-term cleanup settlements. Nor are any such actions mentioned in press releases by his office since he took office. EWG submitted an open records request to the attorney general’s office for documents and communications concerning since Pruitt took office, but has not yet received an answer. But based on our research, we have been unable to identify a single instance in which Pruitt has taken an enforcement action to address groundwater pollution at a swine CAFO.
By contrast, Pruitt’s predecessor, Drew Edmondson recognized the massive problems Oklahoma faced from increasing CAFO pollution, and made it a priority to enforce the laws on swine operations. For example, a 2010 report from Edmondson’s office shows that during his tenure, he negotiated a settlement to address groundwater risks and other problems at two Seaboard swine CAFOs, Wakefield Sow and Dorman Sow, in Beaver County, Okla. As of 2016, neither of those facilities are listed as having elevated levels of nitrates in groundwater in ODAFF’s annual report.
Edmondson also took an enforcement action against a swine CAFO operated by Hanor Roberts Ranch for illegal waste discharges, land application and lagoon leakage. The enforcement action resulted in a $360,000 fine for violations, substantial facility changes and a prohibition on further land application. Edmondson also took actions against several other Seaboard hog farms in Major and Kingfisher counties, resulting in $6.9 million in environmental improvements to address groundwater pollution and other problems at those facilities. Another action against Cimarron Pork resulted in the company spending nearly $1 million to clean up groundwater pollution from illegal discharges from its waste lagoon.
The record is clear that despite ample evidence of a serious problem and his legal responsibility to take action, Pruitt failed to take a single step to address dangerous levels of nitrate pollution from swine CAFOs in Oklahoma. This is yet another example of how Pruitt failed to protect Oklahoma citizens and why he is unfit to take on the country’s top environmental post.
[i] Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 2, § 2A-9(K)(1).