EPA takes over Idaho feedlot inspections
In a letter dated July 14, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) informed the Idaho State Department of Agriculture (ISDA) that the agency will be resuming federal compliance inspection and enforcement responsibilities for the state’s feedlots. The EPA is concerned that ISDA is not inspecting feedlots at a level conducive to ensuring producer compliance with federal laws. EPA is particularly focused on statutes regulating Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) under the Clean Water Act.
ISDA, along with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, has been tasked with feedlot inspections since early 2001. In January of that year, the state signed an agreement with EPA, known as The Idaho Beef Cattle Environmental Control Memorandum of Understanding. The memo, also signed by the Idaho Cattle Association (ICA), outlined specific responsibilities for each agency and recognized the ISDA as the lead inspection and enforcement agency, with the remaining groups playing a support role in the process.
Lloyd Knight, executive vice president for the ICA, reiterated his organization’s support for the agreement. “The ICA supports the memorandum and has no plans to walk away. If the EPA wants to end the program, they are going to have to file the divorce papers,” he said. Knight believes the EPA’s criticism of state inspection programs is unfounded. In the past, he says, EPA sent general inspectors, not CAFO inspectors, from the regional office in Seattle, WA, to perform aerial reconnaissance of some of the state’s feedlot operations followed by seven to ten days of “blitz” type inspections once or twice a year. “The state of Idaho has eight or nine guys working here every day,” he said.
The state’s agreement with EPA was originally set to span a four-year period ending in early 2005, unless an annual extension was agreed upon by the parties. As meetings between the state and EPA progressed, EPA expressed a multitude of concerns about the inspection program. Representatives of EPA claim that despite ISDA assurances to the contrary, no improvements were made to the program, causing the federal agency to allow the agreement to lapse.
Mark MacIntyre, an EPA spokesman, said the agency attempted to remedy the differences and met with the ISDA multiple times over the previous two years to lay out their concerns. Particularly disconcerting to EPA was the nadequate number of inspectors the state had committed to the inspection process.
“We have a dairy inspection program in Idaho we are happy with. If we saw the same level of performance on the beef side, we wouldn’t have ended the agreement,” MacIntyre said. The July 14 letter, addressed to Idaho State Department of Agriculture Secretary Pat Tagasuki, claimed that despite a number of meetings and letters, in which EPA expressed serious concerns, the state had not taken sufficient steps to address “serious program deficiencies.”
Mike Bussell, director of regional compliance and enforcement for EPA, who worked at length with ISDA to improve the inspection program, also expressed frustration with the lack of cooperation from the state. When the initial agreement was signed, ISDA committed to completing a certain number of inspections annually, a number Bussell said was in the hundreds.
To date, the state has only been able to complete a fraction of the agreed to number each year. Of greater concern to EPA is the fact that while the state has attributed the absence of enforcement action to high levels of compliance, follow-up inspections by EPA officials have not upheld that conclusion. According to Bussell, during spot-checks, EPA found “concerning violations” related to wastewater run off into sensitive stream systems. Instead of high levels of compliance, Bussell attributed the lack of enforcement action by ISDA inspectors to a “broad reluctance to levy fines.”
Animal feeding operations have been receiving widespread attention recently and state and federal agencies may be feeling the heat when it comes to inspection issues. On July 20, ISDA, in cooperation with other state agencies, announced that it had levied a number of citations against a feedlot operation in Oakley, ID, for alleged violations of waste handling regulations and state water rights laws. The citations stem from a May 23 inspection of the facility during which state inspectors allegedly found several environmental violations including the improper handling of solid waste and surface water runoff. Additionally, inspectors allege the feedlot was irrigating 549 acres for which the operators had no water rights. ISDA confirmed owners of the feedlot have scheduled a compliance meeting with state regulators, but sources estimate fines of $600,000 are possible.
While some familiar with Idaho’s investigation at the feedlot believe the investigation and resulting fines are related to EPA pressure, others say that isn’t the case. Knight, speaking for ICA, said,“The state started their investigation in May, and the Department of Ag has been waiting for other agencies to wrap up their investigations. They (ISDA) probably could have issued the violations a month ago.”
In a press release related to the investigation of the CAFO facility, producers from across Idaho spoke in support of the state’s investigation, and roundly criticized the owners of the feedlot and their operating practices.
In any case, the expiration and subsequent cancellation of the cooperative memorandum between EPA and ISDA will, in effect, divide the responsibility for feedlot inspection between state and federal agencies.
While EPA has always retained the right to inspect livestock facilities, the expiration of the memo means feedlot operators are more likely to be visited by inspectors from both departments, a move that the EPA says could begin at any time. — John Robinson, WLJ Associate Editor
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