July 3, 2006 – This Fourth of July weekend, Rosy Partridge was hoping to have a traditional outdoor cookout at her rural home in Wall Lake, Iowa.
But even in her small farming community of about 800 people, modern agriculture is making it downright unpleasant to celebrate the old-fashioned way. Partridge, 62, often stays indoors during warm summer evenings to avoid a nauseating odor of putrefied manure emanating from the factory farms just upwind from her.
â€œAbout 8:30 in the evening, I have to shut all my windows really quick, because it just starts to come right into the house,â€� she said. â€œIt just smells like the worst thing you ever smelled. Itâ€™s just rotten.â€�
That stench complements the other troubles she has witnessed as the industrial hog farms in her area churn out meat and manure: beach closings, poisoned fish and pathogenic bacteria in the nearby Raccoon River
Partridge is one of a growing number of Americans living with the unsavory realities of industrial agriculture: massive livestock operations that produce an estimated 500 million tons of manure per year.
Now, residents living near these facilities are joining national environmental organizations to warn that a new proposed regulation from the Environmental Protection Agency threatens to leave an even bigger mess on the doorstep of rural America.
Critics say that under the EPAâ€™s proposal, thousands of â€œconcentrated animal feeding operations,â€� or CAFOs, would be able to slip out of government oversight as they leak and spill excrement into local ecosystems.
The EPA's new proposed rule revolves around what environmental groups consider the unlikely prospect that polluters would out themselves and actively seek to be regulated.
The new rule would exempt many CAFOs from permitting obligations under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, a monitoring and enforcement process that forms the backbone of Clean Water Act enforcement. According to the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), CAFOs could easily pump tons of manure right through a proposed loophole in the ruleâ€™s permit requirements: Only facilities that are already known to discharge pollution and facilities that â€œproposeâ€� to discharge pollution would have to apply for permits.
In effect, the rule revolves around what environmental groups consider the unlikely prospect that polluting operations would out themselves and actively seek a permit.
â€œInstead of writing a revised rule to meet the goals of preventing and reducing pollution,â€� said NRDC attorney Melanie Shepherdson, â€œThe EPA really just chickened out. They ducked the hard question and are leaving it up to polluters to decide whether or not they want to be regulated.â€�
The Agency estimates its proposed rule change would cut the number of CAFOs requiring permits from 18,800 to 14,100.
Environmentalists fear that wiping thousands of facilities off the regulatory radar will accelerate the expansion of factory farming and its attendant environmental abuses. Closely linked to agribusiness giants like Smithfield and Tyson, CAFOs represent the largest facilities out of about 450,000 animal-feeding operations nationwide.
Environmentalists argue that even if the waste isnâ€™t piped straight into the environment, toxic manure trickling into neighboring streams nonetheless qualifies as a real discharge.
CAFOâ€™s typically entail packed, fetid confinements in which immobilized animals defecate in subterranean pits. The manure, laden with harmful bacteria and chemicals, is routed to man-made lagoons for storage, before being scattered or sprayed over local croplands as fertilizer.
Since the supply of manure often far exceeds the amount that fields can effectively absorb for nourishment, the excess is prone to sliding into local streams, rivers and groundwater systems, according to a study by the public-interest group Iowa Policy Project. Surrounding habitats are also threatened by seepage of contaminants from their leaky earthen cesspools, scientists say.
The proposed EPA rule is based on a federal courtâ€™s recent ruling invalidating some parts of an earlier rule issued by the agency in 2003. Those regulations would have imposed permitting requirements on all facilities with the â€œpotentialâ€� to discharge, but the court ruled that the EPA had the authority to require permits only from facilities with â€œactualâ€� discharges, not those with only the potential to violate the Act.
But although the ruleâ€™s language was struck down as too broad, the NRDC and other organizations argue that the court left it up to the EPA to define what constitutes an â€œactualâ€� discharge. Pointing to factory farmingâ€™s dirty track record, environmental groups say that CAFOs do actually pollute in their routine operations â€“ just through different channels than more conventional industrial polluters. Shepherdson said that even if CAFO waste isnâ€™t piped straight into the environment, toxic manure trickling into neighboring streams nonetheless qualifies as a real discharge.
Critics warn that without consistent monitoring or enforcement, animal-feeding operations have little incentive to clean up after themselves.
The NRDC contends that the EPA could have responded to the court by widening and clarifying its regulatory definitions to encompass standard CAFO practices â€“ but the agency chose to reset the rules to placate industry interests.
Environmentalists and community advocates fear that the proposed rule would gut the preventive power of the permit system, since a non-permitted CAFO might encounter state and federal regulators only after its hidden pollution has led to a visible crisis, such as a fish kill in a local river.
The rule has also drawn criticism for going soft on pathogens in livestock manure like fecal coliform. The agency would require facilities to implement technology to cut pathogens by about 45 percent. Yet environmental groups argue that much more effective pollution-control methods are available, and that the EPA lowered the bar to cut costs for producers.
In its proposal, the EPA stated it had â€œidentified several candidate technologies that can potentially achieve greater removals of conventional pollutantsâ€� â€“ up to 99 percent in some cases. But these technologies, such as â€œanaerobic digestersâ€� that help mollify the harmful elements in manure, had failed the Agencyâ€™s â€œcost-reasonableness testâ€� and were supposedly economically unfeasible.
Ed Hopkins, director of the Sierra Clubâ€™s Environmental Quality Program, said that the pathogen standard â€œessentially means that these facilities are going to be able to continue to use our streams and rivers as sewers.â€�
Industry groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers Council â€“ which sued the EPA to loosen the 2003 rule as environmental groups sued to tighten it â€“ support the new rule as a reduction to their regulatory â€œburden.â€�
Don Parrish, senior director of regulatory relations with the Farm Bureau, said that compliance with regulations posed an unfair cost for many of the feedlot operators who his organization represents, and that the 2003 rule would have compromised what he defined as economic freedom.
â€œIf youâ€™re regulating potential discharges, then youâ€™re just regulating peopleâ€¦. Youâ€™re not regulating the thing that is unlawful,â€� he said. â€œThis country is free enterprise. You canâ€™t regulate the operation itself.â€�
The EPA has also cited affordability as a factor in developing its standards. According to the agencyâ€™s analysis, the proposed new rule would knock down the administrative costs of CAFO permitting by about $15 million.
To Karen Hudson of the Illinois-based grassroots group Families Against Rural Messes, environmental harm is inseparable from factory farming. Because CAFOs tend to produce more waste than they could ever use, she said, â€œin order to get rid of it, they have to dump it. And whoâ€™s paying for it? Itâ€™s the communities â€“ in water quality problems, air quality problems and public-health problems.â€�
Opponents of factory farms say that the government has historically failed to regulate them as industrial operations, even though the Clean Water Act considers CAFOs a point source for pollution, similar to other waste-producing facilities. In 2003, around the time the EPA issued its initial rule, the Government Accountability Office reported that an estimated 60 percent of large animal-feeding operations had escaped permitting requirements through various exemptions for agricultural producers.
Though many states require CAFOs to develop â€œnutrient-management plansâ€� for handling and disposing of the manure, environmentalists argue that without consistent monitoring or enforcement, CAFOs have little incentive to clean up after themselves.
The Environmental Integrity Project, a research and advocacy group, reported in 2004 that 3,500 animal-feeding operations in Iowa required permits under the Clean Water Act, but the state Department of Natural Resources had issued only 42 permits. The Project also found that the Department was severely understaffed, with fewer than 30 full-time employees overseeing all CAFOs in the state.
Researchers documented over 320 manure spills from livestock-feeding operations in the state â€“ mostly hog farms â€“ between 1992 and 2002. The pollution killed an estimated 2.6 million fish.
Some environmentalists say that a better pollution-control method is to promote more sustainable alternatives to machinated, corporate-run feedlots. Organizations opposing industrialized agriculture have advocated for a moratorium on the construction of CAFOs, along with policies that foster the growth of decentralized, small-scale agriculture.
Back in Wall Lake, every foul-smelling wind wafting into Rosy Partridgeâ€™s home leaves her more convinced that that the country needs a healthier way to feed itself.
Still, she remarked, while she and other community members try to stoke support for the idea of locally focused, diversified farms, â€œPeople say, â€˜Well, thatâ€™s old-fashioned.â€™ Well, there isnâ€™t anything high-tech about raising a bunch of hogs on a pile of manure. Come on. I think that we could do better.â€�