Who Should Clean Up Big Ag's Mess?

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Who Should Clean Up Big Ag's Mess?

(Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS)

A “Cow Palace” in Washington State threatens public health with its acres of untreated animal waste.

A city in Iowa spends nearly $1 million a year to keep illness-causing nitrates, generated by farm runoff, out of public drinking water.

And who can forget the plight of Toledo, Ohio, residents whose water last summer was so contaminated by farm runoff that they couldn’t even bathe in it, much less drink it?

For decades, America’s chemical-intensive, industrial farming operations have spewed nitrates and other toxic chemicals, animal waste, ammonia, antibiotics, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane gases into public air, waterways and communities.

How do they get away with it? Largely because lobbyists have seen to it that Big Ag is exempt from many of the rules and regulations that other industries, and even municipalities, are required to follow under the Clean Air Act (comments on exemptions here), the Clean Water Act (comments on exemptions here), the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the Safe Drinking Act, and others.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says it’s trying to “clarify” the rules outlined in the Clean Water Act, as they apply to farming operations, through its proposed Waters of the U.S. rule. Opponents of the Waters of the U.S. rule accuse the FDA of trying to eliminate exemptions for farmers, though the EPA insists that’s not the case.

One opponent, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), has introduced HR 594, a bill intended to stop the Waters of the U.S. rule in its tracks and preserve exemptions for factory farms and other industrial ag operations. Gosar’s bill reflects Big Ag’s position that any attempt to make industrial ag operations play by the same rules as other polluters represents “massive overreach” by the EPA.

It remains to be seen how the battle to clean up the mess made by factory farms and other agribusiness operations will play out in Washington D.C. Meanwhile, a growing number of cities and states are turning to the courts for help.

Recent court cases—in Des Moines, Iowa, Wisconsin and Washington State—represent the growing frustration of city and state governments over the cost of protecting public health and the environment from the more than 200 million pounds (according to a June 2014 report by the Environment America Research & Policy Center) of toxic chemicals industrial ag dumps into U.S. waterways every year.

If a recent ruling in Washington State is any indication, courts may be ready to crack down on factory farms and other ag operations, even if the EPA won’t.

The solution no one in Washington or the courts is talking about? Eliminating, not just mitigating, ag industry pollution by transitioning to pesticide-free, chemical-free organic, crop-diverse, non-GMO, regenerative agriculture.

Cow Palace—a Royal Pain for Neighbors

More than 11,000 cows live (if you can call it that) at Cow Palace LLC, a factory farm dairy in Granger, Wash. By the EPA’s definition, 11,000 cows qualifies Cow Palace as a Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO).

According to a report on E&E Publishing, Cow Palace:

. . . produces 61 million gallons of manure-contaminated water every year from washing cows and 40 million gallons of liquid manure. It composts that manure, sprays it on fields as fertilizers or dumps it into lagoons.

According to expert testimony, the farm's manure lagoons leak millions of gallons of waste into nearby soil and groundwater every year.

That’s a lot of animal waste. It’s also the reason Cow Palace is one of several dairy CAFOs that were sued by the Community Association for Restoration of the Environment (CARE) and Center for Food Safety (CFS) for causing a public health threat by contaminating nearby drinking water.

On January 14 (2015), in the first ruling of its kind—and sending a clear signal to industrial dairy farms everywhere—a federal judge in Washington State ruled that Cow Palace and two other industrial dairy farms had violated solid waste disposal rules under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and should be responsible for the clean-up.

The crux of the case is this. Factory farm dairies across the country have for decades taken advantage of exemptions that allow them to spread raw, untreated animal waste on open fields—as long as they call it “fertilizer.”

But in the lawsuit against Cow Palace and the other dairies, CFS and CARE argued that the dairies had spread manure far in excess of what could reasonably be considered necessary to fertilize fields. In other words, they were just dumping manure on open fields—in amounts that were fouling water supplies and making people sick.

According to CFS:

The dairies’ practices cause nitrates and other pollutants to enter into nearby soils and drinking water.  A 2012 EPA study showed that 20 percent of the 331 wells tested in the Lower Yakima Valley had nitrate levels above federal drinking water standards, posing a serious danger to the more than 24,000 residents who rely on private wells for drinking water. Nitrates can cause severe health problems such as blue baby syndrome, several forms of cancer, autoimmune system dysfunction, and reproductive problems.  The dairies named in the lawsuits were subjects of EPA’s study.  Since the EPA study, additional information confirms the dairies’ contributions to contamination of drinking water in the region.

Judge Thomas Rice of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington agreed, when he cleared the case to go to trial. In his 111-page ruling, Rice wrote:

There can be no dispute that the dairy's operations may present imminent and substantial endangerment to the public who is consuming contaminated water.

In a statement obtained by PoliticoPro (a paywalled site), Jessica Culpepper, food safety and health attorney at Public Justice, said that Rice’s ruling:

. . . is a clear indication that mega-dairies … may not continue to operate in a way that dumps their mess on the people and the environment. By creating far more manure than the dairy could possibly manage and allowing its facility to operate under filthy conditions, it has endangered not only the environment and a community’s drinking water supply, but the health and safety of the animals, the farmworkers, and dairy consumers as well.

Factory farm dairies across the U.S. will be watching the case closely. Attorney John Dillard told PoliticoPro:

If this stands or this makes it through an appeal, this is going to be a big challenge to the agriculture industry by creating a tension with clean water laws that exempt agricultural runoff by potentially subjecting farmers to another environmental statute.

Another environmental statute? Or just the same rules everyone else has to follow when it comes to dumping raw animal waste in places where it can pollute people’s drinking water and make them sick?

City of Des Moines’ Cup Runneth Over—with Toxic Nitrates

The city of Des Moines, Iowa, located in the heart of farming country, is tired of footing the bill for cleaning up after surrounding farms. So city officials are taking their complaint to court.

On January 9, 2015, the city sent a letter to three northwest counties, announcing its intent to sue the counties for polluting central Iowa's drinking water.

Pointing out that the city spent nearly $1 million in 2013 to run the nation’s largest nitrate-removal facility, city officials said the problem is escalating. A representative told PoliticoPro that nitrate levels in the rivers were greater during one week in the summer of 2013, than for all of 2012.

Ann Alexander, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told PoliticoPro:

The agricultural industry is causing a huge, multibillion-dollar problem, and Des Moines is a victim of that problem. There's no reason in the world why Des Moines should have to pay to fix a problem it did not cause.

One city official, who spoke to us by phone, said the city isn’t targeting farmers directly. She said that the counties targeted in the lawsuit should be required to obtain permits for what are essentially drainage districts that are illegally discharging nitrates and other pollutants.

“As a public utility, we’re required to have those permits. We’re just asking that the counties be subjected to the same rules,” she said.

Of course, the American Farm Bureau Federation doesn’t see it that way. Don Parrish, the Farm Bureau’s senior director of regulatory relations, told PoliticoPro:

Farmers are only using as much fertilizer and other inputs as they need for the land, and are conscientious stewards of water resources. What’s more, taking land out of production to put in extensive natural buffers and other infrastructure in to reduce runoff isn’t a viable option, as the crops being produced not only feed the nearby populations, but also spur economic activity.

Spur economic activity, maybe. But feed nearby populations? With GMO corn and soy? Not likely.

According to the website Iowa Farmers Feed Us, hogs, not people, are the single largest consumers of Iowa’s corn and soybeans. Corn and soybeans are, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the biggest crops in Iowa.

And all three—hogs, corn and soybeans—make up a significant portion of Iowa’s exports.

Regardless of who’s being fed what, or where, by Iowa farms, it’s clear where the farms’ pollutants are winding up—in drinking water and nitrate-removal facilities in cities like Des Moines.

Lawsuits in Washington State and Des Moines, Iowa, are just two recent examples of attempts to address the growing problem of how to keep the public safe from the ever-increasing onslaught of toxic chemicals pouring into the environment and threatening our health—chemicals generated by an industrial farming system unable to curb a dangerous ecosystem-threatening addiction.

Environmental and animal rights groups recently sued the EPA for failing to enforce Clean Air Act regulations governing ammonia and other emissions from waste produced by large livestock facilities under the Clean Air Act.

And in Wisconsin, environmental groups hope recent rulings by the Wisconsin Supreme Court and a federal judge criticizing the manure-spreading practices of dairy farms there will spur progress toward improving the state’s water quality.

The courts may ultimately play a role in forcing Big Ag to clean up its act. Still, as citizens, we have a responsibility to continue to try to protect our drinking water by pressuring government officials to enforce existing regulations, and to write stronger ones. You can start by asking the EPA to protect U.S. waterways from industrial farm pollution.

But the bigger challenge is how to steer public opinion and public policy in the direction of sane science—science that is clearly telling us that earth and the humans who inhabit it are reaching, may indeed have already surpassed, their limit to survive what has become an unprecedented toxic overload, generated by a farming system gone mad.

Katherine Paul

Katherine Paul is associate director of the Organic Consumers Association.

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