America’s food systems are today dominated by a handful of multinational corporations that employ industrialized methods to produce most of the meat and dairy we consume. One common and destructive practice is that of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, where animals are “produced,” often in confinement facilities. These facilities produce an estimated 1.1 billion tons of animal waste every year, and are predominantly located in rural areas and often in communities of color. At facilities that produce a liquid waste stream, like a hog CAFO, the animal waste is typically stored in unlined lagoons that can pollute groundwater and then the waste is applied to agricultural fields, often far beyond what is needed to grow food, resulting in pollution of nearby surface waters and groundwater.
Corporatization of the animal agriculture industry has created a crisis for farmers and the public. It is an ongoing environmental disaster and an affront to countless communities across the country.This is because EPA and the states are not enforcing laws that prohibit water pollution from CAFOs, and this needs to stop.
CAFOs are one of the largest unaddressed sources of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the United States. Nutrient pollution from uncontrolled discharges of nitrogen and phosphorus has become a national crisis that is producing toxic algal blooms and impairing drinking water supplies, fisheries, and recreational waters across the country. Lake Erie, the Chesapeake Bay, the Mississippi River Basin, North Carolina’s coastal estuaries, and many other inland and coastal waters are already affected.
Specifically, EPA must recognize the fact that CAFOs across the country are discharging pollution into the nation’s waters in violation of the Clean Water Act and require these facilities to prevent pollution discharges through the Act’s mandatory permitting system, which has been largely unimplemented for years.
Currently, the largest CAFOs are required to obtain Clean Water Act permits if they are discharging pollution. However, only 31% of these facilities have actually obtained permits. Because of overwhelming industry influence, regulatory agencies have not taken action to ensure that large CAFOs are obtaining and complying with permits that employ meaningful pollution controls.
To address this nationwide crisis, we need EPA to implement and enforce the Clean Water Act by requiring CAFOs to obtain permits that contain meaningful and protective limits that actually prevent uncontrolled discharge of untreated animal waste into our nation’s waters. EPA must also adopt a rebuttable presumption that large CAFOs using liquid management systems actually discharge water pollution and must obtain water pollution discharge permits under the Clean Water Act.
Communities across the country are harmed by CAFO pollution, including serious water contamination problems, degradation of drinking water, and impairment of opportunities for fishing, boating, and engaging in other forms of recreation. That harm is disproportionately experienced by communities of color, low-income communities, and under-resourced rural communities in which CAFOs are densely concentrated. For the most part, these facilities are sited and begin operation without any notice to, or input from, the people and communities that will be directly impacted by the pollution.
For far too long, the states have routinely shown a lack of transparency in deference to the agricultural industry, much to the detriment of people and communities. That is why we need EPA to step up and implement Clean Water Act permitting requirements for large CAFOs, which will mandate public notice and engagement opportunities for the public when these facilities seek to locate within a community.