Since When Is the EPA Beholden to Big Ag?

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Food & Water Watch blog

Since When Is the EPA Beholden to Big Ag?

The EPA Has the Authority to Track and Regulate Factory Farms. So Why Do We Have to Remind Them?

Earlier this year, F&WW released a report detailing how poorly the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tracks and regulates concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). In fact, the situation is so bad that Food & Water Watch is suing EPA to force them to count CAFOs accurately and share that list with the public, just as it does for other polluting industries. In our review of hundreds of internal EPA documents, we found another story to tell.

Why is EPA explaining itself to the livestock industry…

When EPA backed down from an attempt to track CAFOs in the summer of 2012 (by abandoning the “CAFO Reporting Rule” it was writing), environmental advocates wanted to get to the bottom of it. Three environmental organizations filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests asking for all the documents relating to the proposed and withdrawn regulation. The hundreds of documents EPA gave in reply included lists of CAFO names, locations, and other basic information provided to the agency by state governments in lieu of a comprehensive CAFO Reporting Rule. Such information was largely already public and represented a portion of what needed to be collected had EPA finalized the rule.

Yet, EPA made a point to give the livestock industry a special heads up about releasing this basic information under FOIA.

An e-mail EPA sent to several livestock industry organizations notifying them about something that should have been routine: that information that was already largely in the public domain was released as part of a FOIA request as required by law. The Senior Policy Advisor explained, “I have been reaching out to you and your colleagues as soon as I became aware of this situation…” She offered to (and later did) set up special meetings and conference calls and provided copies of the FOIA records to the livestock groups, and EPA staff even provided hand-delivered CDs when links to records didn’t work.

… when the livestock industry bashes EPA just for following the law?

The livestock industry rewarded EPA’s kowtowing with vitriolic press releases. National Cattlemen’s Beef Association referred to the groups who submitted the FOIA as “extremist groups, and its past president J.D. Alexander claimed, “…the only thing it doesn’t do is chauffeur these extremists to my house.” The National Pork Producers Council President R.C. stated, “What’s ironic is that, in the name of transparency, EPA released information in secret and violated the privacy rights of farmers across the country.” What’s truly ironic is the industry’s anger over transparency, one of the basic building blocks of any true democracy. Nowhere did the press releases mention that EPA acted according to FOIA or that most of this information exists already in the public domain.

Eight industry trade groups, including the American Farm Bureau, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and National Pork Producers, wrote to the EPA to express “deep concern” and “outrage” over perceived violations of personal privacy due to the FOIA release. The industry groups asserted that releasing data about CAFOs threatens farm families and increases the risk of bioterrorism against the food supply. It didn’t take long for some Congress people to weigh in too. A letter from the Republican senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee to EPA shared similar rhetoric, claiming that the EPA “has shown no regard for the privacy and safety of private citizens, and businesses” (sic).

All of these attacks ignored, of course, that the “personal information” that was released by EPA was not personal at all, but simply the names and addresses of facilities that, collectively, make up one of the most highly polluting industries in the country. If EPA doesn’t keep track of CAFOs, as it does for other polluting industries, CAFOs can avoid accountability for their harmful impacts in our waterways and communities. 

Maryland Residents Pay to Clean Up the Bay. Polluting Poultry Companies Should Pay Their Fair Share.

At Food & Water Watch, we believe in open government and accountability. We think that all polluters of our common trust waterways should be properly regulated. That’s why, in addition to pressuring EPA to do the right thing, we’re also introducing state-level legislation to force some accountability on the ag industry. In Maryland this coming year, we’re introducing the Poultry Fair Share Act to require poultry companies, who have been, for decades, one of the biggest sources of pollution to the dying Chesapeake Bay, to finally contribute its fair share into the Bay Restoration. It’s time to end agribusiness’s free ride.

Contact your Maryland legislators and tell them to please support legislation that would make the biggest polluters pay their fair share to clean up the massive amounts of pollution they dump into the Bay. Click here to support fair share legislation.

Sarah Borron

Sarah Borron is a Researcher on the Food Team at Food & Water Watch.

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