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CAFOs under fire

Mar 10, 2017

Pete Crow

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) seem to be the bane of our political existence in agriculture these days. There is some kind of NGO supporting just about any cause your heart desires and there seem to be more and more every year.

The problem is when they start trying to affect government regulation or policy, but it does go both ways.

Last week Food and Water Watch (FWW) along with 34 other organizations petitioned Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Chief Scott Pruitt to strengthen the environmental regulations governing Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). This would be a real test of Pruitt’s resolve to save the environment through the Clean Water Act. FWW seems to prefer the term “factory farms” rather than CAFOs to describe livestock feeding operations.

We have always thought that the environmental advocates would come after President Donald Trump’s administration with a vengeance, and now we’re seeing it firsthand. Trump’s selections for leaders of the departments of Interior, Agriculture and EPA have ruffled a lot of feathers in the environment advocacy business.

Pruitt does indeed have a record of challenging the EPA and the limits of their authority. He has done a good job for Oklahoma, and we expect him to do an even better job on the national level. FWW Executive Director Wenonah Hauter said in a press release, “This petition paves the way for EPA to finally regulate CAFOs as required under the Clean Water Act, and explains that allowing CAFO pollution to continue unabated by maintaining the woefully inadequate status quo would violate federal law. Pruitt’s record as Oklahoma attorney general shows that he’s only looking out for industry interests, including interests of polluting factory farms.

But the EPA is legally bound to protect communities from pollution, and we intend to hold the agency accountable for doing its job.”

How many times have you heard this story? The livestock feeding business has been very careful to comply with EPA regulations and invests heavily in pollution control systems; they’re required under the law. These folks want to strengthen the laws and place more burdens on the production of meat and dairy products. Remember that we have the most plentiful, safest and least costly food production system in the world, and one of the cleanest environments as well.

Both state and national environmental agencies watch CAFOs like a hawk and they are highly regulated for both water and air quality. Feedlots are, however, getting larger. Cattle-on-feed statistics show that there are 30,000 cattle feedlots in the country and 93 percent are under 1,000 head while the larger feedlots make up only 7 percent of the total and produce 87 percent of the fed steer and heifer slaughter. Fewer than 1,000-head lots have fallen by 65 percent over the past 10 years while feedlots of 50,000 head and larger have grown by 28 percent. The economies of scale are at work here.

The EPA says it has been difficult to get reliable information on CAFO pollution because they don’t have the money to collect the data to draw up tougher regulations. Cattle feeders and dairies have a huge problem with manure handling and do everything they can to mitigate the problem, from spreading it on field crops to selling it as compost to gardeners to turning it in to methane gas with costly methane digesters.

Accidents do happen, especially with huge weather events like we’re seeing in California. Waste lagoons can get overwhelmed with storm water and sometimes breach and flow into nearby streams, rivers and lakes. Waste lagoons are required to withstand a 24-hour rain, which would be a 25-year storm event.

Now that President Trump has put the brakes on the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule, we avoid the EPA from expanding their definition of what a regulated water source is. This will make any new CAFO regulations tougher to write. In the past it has been difficult for EPA to determine if CAFO runoff flows into a regulated body of water. The industry dodged a bullet on this one.

This petition by the FWW people seems rather redundant and appears to be more of a test of the new EPA leadership. Pruitt will uphold the law, but the livestock feeding industry has to do their part and stay on top of their manure management program. — PETE CROW

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