POLLUTION LOCATOR|EPA/USDA Unified National Strategy for Animal Feeding Operations

In March, 1999, the Clinton Administration released its federal strategy to help clean up rivers, lakes and coastal waters by reducing polluted runoff from large livestock operations. The National Strategy for Animal Feeding Operations emphasizes planning and voluntary action, rather than stringent regulatory standards or accelerated development of new waste treatment technologies. The Strategy calls for the development of Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plans for all animal feeding operations by 2009. Livestock operations must develop these plans, which will include actions to prevent or reduce runoff, including feed management, improved storage and handling of manure, and better land management. The strategy recommends that large 'integrators" (companies that contract with smaller operators to raise their animals) share responsibility for meeting new regulatory requirements, but leaves it to states to implement integrator liability. EPA would be allowed to intervene in cases in which the federal government believes states have not done enough to hold companies accountable for pollution.

EPA and USDA are focusing on reducing potentially harmful runoff from factory farms. Operations that pose a significant risk to water quality or public health - about five percent of the 450,000 animal feeding operations nationwide - will be required to obtain Clean Water Act discharge permits and will be subject to inspections and civil fines or criminal sanctions for disposal violations. Operations presumed to pose a significant risk include farms with more than 1,000 animal units; those that discharge directly into waterways or have other "unacceptable" conditions; and those that contribute significantly to the impairment of a waterbody. It is expected that 18,000 major hog, cattle, dairy, and poultry producers will be required to obtain permits. Voluntary programs will be the main approach for smaller operations that make up 95 percent of the nation's animal feeding industry.

In August, 1999, the Clinton Administration released draft guidelines on permitting the estimated 18,000 major producer mentioned above. The 1999 Draft Guidance Manual and Example NPDES Permit for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations is intended to provide clear and concise guidance NPDES permit writers and to establish a minimum framework states must use for permitting large agricultural producers. However, environmental organizations criticized the guidelines for giving too much discretion to individual state agencies to decide the specific details any permit requirements. The 60-day public comment period for these draft guidelines has closed. It remains to be seen what changes, if any, are incorporated into the final guidelines.

While these actions are important positive steps toward addressing pollution from factory farms, the Clinton Administration plan has a number of major drawbacks. Most importantly, the current national strategy fails to address the fundamental problem: current animal waste treatment techniques are flawed and need to be phased out. The Strategy fails to promote the development and adoption of new technologies which are needed to protect public health and the environment. The Strategy relies entirely upon voluntary measures for the vast majority of livestock operations. This means that many large factory farms are simply encouraged to develop written strategies for storage and handling of large volumes of manure. Nutrient management plans need not even be developed until 2009, postponing the need for immediate action in regions where the continued use of primitive waste management techniques is having serious water quality impacts. Although the Strategy acknowledges that problems with odor and air pollution exist, it fails to address them with any kinds of controls. EPA and the USDA hope that these impacts will be reduced as an indirect benefit of the implementation of nutrient management plans. The Strategy also fails to adequately safeguard against groundwater contamination. While the EPA and USDA suggest that soil and manure testing should be incorporated into an operation's nutrient management plan, the agencies decided not to include groundwater testing as a required component.

In North Carolina, the fastest growing pork-producing state up until last year, lawmakers imposed a moratorium on new and expanded factory hog farms until ongoing scientific research is completed. The state is also developing a phase-out plan for the use of open-air lagoons and sprayfields in favor of more effective waste technologies and practices. The EPA and USDA should follow this example and adopt a temporary national moratorium on new or expanding factory farms until effective pollution control plans can be developed and implemented.