A report published Monday by the Natural Resources Defense Council claims the Environmental Protection Agency has no information on the 9,734 concentrated animal feeding operations the government agency estimates exist in the country.
Also known as CAFOs, these large-scale facilities each house hundreds or thousands of animals. The EPA regulates these operations under the Clean Water Act, since the volume of manure they produce can contaminate the water supply and harm people living near the farm if improperly managed.
NRDC’s report, “CAFOs: What We Don’t Know Is Hurting Us,” is based on a review of data on CAFOs published publicly online by the EPA and states, as well as information received through a Freedom of Information Act request. The request was completed in 2013, while all other data was collected in 2015. Though the EPA estimated in 2012 that 17,329 CAFOs exist in the United States, the NRDC analysis was only able to identify 7,595 CAFOs in 40 states with associated data. It also found more facilities than the EPA estimates in nine states and no data for another nine states where the EPA determined CAFOs were active. In one case, the EPA estimated 1,028 facilities existed in California, but the NRDC only found information on a single facility. The EPA was not able to respond to a MuckRock request for comment in time for publication.
“Another part of the mandate of the Clean Water Act is the EPA is supposed to make sure that the states meet certain minimum standards,” says Valerie Baron, an NRDC staff attorney focused on health and food. “I don’t see a way for the agency to do that if they can’t even establish where the facilities are, let alone what type of pollution load they should be producing.”
A Government Accountability Office study in 2008 found that the EPA did not keep data on the location of these facilities and their discharges. The EPA then proposed a rule in October 2011 to require CAFOs to submit information to the agency, including the facility’s location and how many animals it houses. However, the agency withdrew the rule in July 2012, saying it could obtain the information it needed through cooperation with state agencies. The NRDC review, however, challenges whether this has actually been happening.
Environmental groups like the NRDC are concerned the lack of federal oversight on CAFOs will lead to improper waste disposal. When not properly treated, manure can release greenhouse gases and chemicals like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide into the atmosphere. CAFOs typically keep animals in confined conditions, and to prevent disease, continually feed animals low doses of antibiotics. While this kills some bacteria, it can cause other bacteria to become antibiotic resistant. When manure is not properly disposed of, these bacteria can be transmitted through the air and may be found in meat from these animals.
In some states, like North Carolina, CAFOs apply manure to fields by aerosolizing it and spraying it into the air. Elsie Herring, who lives next to a factory farm facility in North Carolina, says the farm is on land that has been in her family since the 1890s.
“They’ve taken the majority of the land, and they spray the field like eight feet from my mother’s house,” Herring said.
In 2018, the EPA settled a lawsuit filed by the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network claiming the state’s regulation of swine feeding operations discriminated against black, Latino, and Native American Communities. The state agreed to conduct air and water quality tests in Sampson and Duplin counties, the results of which will be posted by February 2020.
The NRDC, as well as Earthjustice and Pew Charitable Trusts, filed a FOIA request with the agency for its information on CAFOs and the data it collected from states about them. After the EPA released the information it had gathered from the 28 states at the time, trade groups in the agricultural industry raised concerns about privacy, since the information from some states included mailing addresses, names, and phone numbers. These 19 states had this information previously available to the public on websites or by request, so the EPA determined that the information didn’t warrant being withheld under a FOIA exemption.
After the backlash from industry groups, the EPA provided the requesters with an amended response twice: once to redact location data from 10 states where that information was not public and again because the agency failed to redact that data for CAFOs in Montana and Nebraska.
The American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers Council then sued the EPA, seeking a “reverse” FOIA order that would require the agency to recall the personal information it had gained from states and prevent it from disclosing that information in the future.
In 2017, the EPA under Administrator Scott Pruitt settled with industry groups after the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the agency had not properly applied the exemption, and the agency agreed to only release more general location data about CAFOs. In the same year, the EPA updated its estimate to 19,961 CAFOs in the United States, a 15 percent increase from 2012.
Because of this ruling, the NRDC acknowledged in a blog post that “while the overall outlook remains similar, conditions may have changed in several states between when the data NRDC obtained was collected and the present.” The organization believes the information they have is “likely more comprehensive than anything the agency will release in the foreseeable future.”
The NRDC is recommending states amend their regulations that impact CAFOs and has provided a sample pollution control permit. They are also suggesting that members of the public speak out whenever these regulations are revised.
“Really, it’s only about the information that the public and the agencies need to do their job and protect waterways and protect human health from this very dangerous, very large industry,” said Baron.