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EPA: Making Our Rivers for the Birds

October 3rd, 2014
By Paige M. Tomaselli, Senior Attorney, Center for Food Safety and Scott Edwards, Co-director, Food and Water Justice
Center for Food Safety

The ongoing fight to stop the industrialized poultry industry from polluting the nation’s waterways suffered another significant blow after EPA announced it was no longer seeking an appeal of a bad West Virginia federal court decision, and environmentalists were forced to follow suit in withdrawing from the case.

Our modern chicken production system is comprised of mega-poultry companies—Pilgrim’s, Tyson, Perdue, Foster Farms and a small handful of others—who contract with local growers to raise hundreds of thousands of birds on unsustainable and highly polluting factory farms. These companies, who own the birds, feed and drugs and dictate growing conditions, leave the burden of waste disposal on the backs of contract growers who are unable to properly manage the many thousands of pounds of manure that are left behind with each flock removed from these facilities. 

Ms. Lois Alt raises chickens in West Virginia for Pilgrim's—a major food producer owned by the Brazilian company JBS. Alt admits she discharges pollution into the Chesapeake Bay watershed—a nutrient impaired watershed suffering from massive nutrient dead zones every summer. Generally, polluters are required to obtain a Clean Water Act permit, but in 2012, Ms. Alt sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) so that she could avoid filling out the permit application and continue polluting the streams and rivers near her facility with immunity.

Alt was not alone in her attempt to evade responsibility for her pollution. Alt’s lawsuit was backed by the American Farm Bureau Federation—an industry group that supports animal factories over American farms. The Farm Bureau is seeking similar exemptions for thousands of industrial animal feeding operations (CAFOs) despite the fact that these operations are among the largest sources of nutrient pollution in waterways across the country.

Unfortunately, the lawsuit ended in a ruling by a federal District Court judge that gave Alt, and many other factory farms, the green light to pollute local waters; its effects will ripple across the nation's threatened waterways.

Last week, in the latest sign that EPA remains unwilling to confront industrial farm pollution, the Agency announced that it was folding its tent and withdrawing its appeal of this significantly harmful decision.

Environmental organizations* had intervened in the Alt case in order to uphold the Clean Water Act’s protections from these industrial sources of pollution. Unfortunately, in light of EPA’s announcement that it was abandoning its appeal of the Alt decision, the environmentalists have also now withdrawn their appeal. It’s very difficult to walk into court to defend Agency regulations when the Agency itself doesn’t have the courage to show up and defend itself.

Despite EPA’s long history of failing to adequately address the ongoing threat factory farming poses to our waterways and communities, the Agency’s withdrawal announcement still maintained that it stood behind its regulations and had “dedicated one of EPA’s six National Enforcement Initiatives to preventing animal waste from [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations] from contaminating water.”

If EPA is to be believed, then it should have maintained its appeal and defended its position in court instead of, once again, abandoning our communities and waterways to ongoing pollution from factory farms. EPA must also take steps to hold those truly responsible for the massive amounts of pollution coming from these factory farms: the giant poultry companies who continue to hide behind the backs of contract growers while refusing to take responsibility for the mountains of waste created by their industrial meat production system.

In the meantime, the Clean Water Act was enacted by Congress in 1972 and, in recognition of the fact that government wouldn’t always be willing to enforce the law as written, the Act provides citizens with the power to confront polluters of our public trust waterways. And with EPA so willing to ignore its mission to protect people and the environment from the ongoing threat of factory farm pollution, its become even more important for groups such as ours, and many other advocates across the country, to continue our efforts to bring some level of accountability to this irresponsible industry. EPA may have given up the fight, but we have not.


*The environmental organizations were Potomac Riverkeeper, Inc., Food & Water Watch, West Virginia Rivers Coalition, Waterkeeper Alliance and Center for Food Safety, represented by lawyers from Earthjustice, Center for Food Safety, and the Columbia Environmental Law Clinic.

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