The pressure put on EPA over ‘factory farms’

A letter sent Tuesday to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan urges him to unleash EPA’s powers on so-called “factory farms.” The letter is signed by 218 known and unknown groups.

The many groups want more federal oversight of the organizations USDA calls “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations” or CAFOs. They argue the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act justify the additional scrutiny

.The letter raises charges that pollution “disproportionately sited in black and brown communities.” are reasons for stepped-up investigation of “factory farms.”

“In the U.S., CAFOs generate as much as one billion tons of manure each year, more than three times as much waste as humans, ” the letter claims. “The waste, which is often stored in giant manure pits and periodically applied to spray fields, can contain pathogens, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and heavy metals, leading to death and poor general health.

“Odor plumes from CAFOs, which often pervade nearby communities, contain respiratory and eye irritants including hydrogen sulfide and ammonia.  Both substances are associated with a variety of respiratory issues at certain levels, and studies have found consistent correlations between communities’ proximity to CAFOs and asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and other serious health issues. One study published in 2021 found approximately 12,700 deaths per year from air pollution in the U.S. are attributable to industrial livestock production. That is more deaths than occur from pollution from coal plants, yet EPA has largely shielded industrial livestock integrators and their web of CAFOs from oversight. Multinational agribusiness has been vertically and horizontally integrating the meat production supply chain for the past several decades, leading to the massive growth of CAFOs.”

 The letter alleges that “CAFOs represent an environmental justice crisis that has gone unaddressed by – and has even been exacerbated by – EPA for decades” and urges EPA to “end the regulatory exceptionalism for the industrial livestock agribusinesses profiting from the exploitation of environmental justice communities.”

“After decades of fighting against factory farms without federal government support, rural communities continue to be affected by harmful operations that degrade their health, natural resources, and quality of life,” said Adriane Busby, Senior Food and Climate Policy Analyst at Friends of the Earth. “If EPA is serious about protecting communities from environmental racism and mitigating climate change, the agency must take meaningful and immediate action to rein in the harms from CAFOs.

“For too long, massive corporations have dominated animal agriculture. From skyrocketing asthma rates to a dead zone in the gulf, their practices are compromising the health of people and our planet, while squeezing independent farmers out of business,” said Navina Khanna, Executive Director of the HEAL Food Alliance. “Animal agriculture systems that respect the life of those animals, surrounding communities, and local ecosystems are possible. For them to be economically successful, there must be a system of checks and balances that holds corporations accountable for externalizing the costs of factory farms. We demand the EPA step up and begin regulating and rectifying the harm to our health and safety now.” 

“For generations, family farmers have nourished the U.S. with healthy food while caring for animals and the land. CAFOs, however, pollute our land, air, and water, and drive small independent farmers off the land. It’s time EPA used its regulatory power to stop CAFO pollution and protect rural communities,” said Lynn Henning, family farmer and field operations team director, SRAP.

The letter also makes a plea personally to the EPA Administrator

“Your home state of North Carolina is perhaps the most poignant example of the environmental racism associated with this industry and the devastation to communities of color caused by a lack of federal oversight. Naeema Muhammad, a long-time organizer with the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, explains it best:

“These pigs are producing about 19 million tons of animal waste on an annual basis. It’s going into our rivers and streams. It sits out in the air openly until they decide to irrigate it. They irrigate this waste around the fields and crops. They call it organic fertilizer and say that there was no harm to it. But the problem is that it has all kinds of toxic chemicals. Hydrogen sulfide comes off the lagoons and it’s making people in the community sick. As an organizer, I’ve been working with these communities since the early 2000s. People say they get sick, nauseated, you get headaches, and you get angry and frustrated living like that. People don’t go outside anymore.

“Many of our bedrock environmental protection laws — such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act— already authorize EPA to oversee emissions and discharges from CAFOs, but EPA has consistently exempted animal agriculture from standards meant to protect communities from industrial pollution. Congress has granted the EPA authority to protect the public from harmful pollution,19 and the agency has several regulatory petitions before it that lay out pathways to exercise this authority. We urge EPA to end the regulatory exceptionalism and hold accountable the industrial livestock agribusinesses profiting from the exploitation of environmental justice communities.”

EPA has several pending rulemaking petitions before it, including petitions to list industrial dairy and hog operations under Section 111 of the Clean Air Act; rescind the Air Consent Agreement and enforce Clean Air Laws against CAFOs, and revise Clean Water Act regulations as they apply to CAFOs. The agency has not acted on any of the petitions, but EPA is expected to propose a rule in December that would repeal a Trump-era rule exempting CAFOs from the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). 

Friends of the Earth seeks to create a more healthy and just world. Its current campaigns focus on promoting clean energy and solutions to climate change, ensuring the food we eat and products we use are safe and sustainable and protecting marine ecosystems and the people who live and work near them.

For more than 20 years, SRAP has served as a mobilizing force to help communities protect themselves from the damages caused by industrial livestock operations and to advocate for a food system built on regenerative practices, justice, democracy, and resilience. Our team includes technical experts, independent family farmers, and rural residents who have faced the threats of factory farms in their communities. When asked for help, SRAP offers free support, providing communities with the knowledge and skills to protect their right to clean water, air, and soil and to a healthy, just, and vibrant future. Learn more at sraproject.org.

The HEAL (Health, Environment, Agriculture, Labor) Food Alliance is a national multi-sector, multi-racial coalition.

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