Factory farms can create more waste than some cities. As such, they're definitely in need of regulation by a federal program like the Environmental Protection Agency. Trouble is, as a recent report to Congress made known, the EPA can't regulate farms very well, and that's not just because they're a massive environmental nightmare. The EPA has no idea how many exist.
The Associated Press reports that, despite the power it was granted four years ago to protect the U.S.'s waterways, the EPA has left factory farms unchecked. Without information on the location of farms, the agency can't calculate the amount of manure that farms are creating, or how the waste is handled.
On many factory farms, manure is directed into man-made, outdoor basins dug into the earth called manure lagoons. Pools full of poo arean unsavory concept, but even moreso in the event of overflow, when manure makes its way into waterways, contaminating water with antibiotics, bacteria, pesticides, and other harmful substances. Water quality experts say leaks and overflows are a significant contributor to water quality problems.
Even when lagoons hold strong and contain manure like they're supposed to, they continually emit gases, including ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, and carbon dioxide, which have shown to have adverse effects on the environment.
The EPA has little access to information because most factory farmers report their conditions to local and state departments (and in some cases, don't report at all). Consequently, the EPA has to seek out information from other state, local, and federal organizations in order to do its job--a tedious process that leaves room for error. Shocking environmentalists, the EPA recently decided against a rule that would require all livestock operators to report to the EPA.
"It's been (decades) since we first started regulating them and we're not at a point where we know where they're at?" Kelly Foster, a senior attorney at Waterkeep Alliance, said to the AP. Waterkeeper Alliance is one of several groups that sued the EPA over collecting the information from farms. In response to the suit, the EPA agreed to propose a rule that would require EPA reporting, but it made no promises the agency would adopt it.
Unsurprisingly, many factory farmers don't want to hand over information to the EPA, arguing that they report enough to other agencies already.
Michael Formica, an environmental lawyer for the National Pork Producers Council, told the AP, "We're not keeping them from getting the information, but we don't need to turn it all over." The Pork Council has threatened to sue if the EPA adopts the reporting rule.
Jon Devine, a senior attorny at the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) summed up the situation astutely: "It's a catch-me-if-you-can scenario."
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A sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, Megan likes writing about food almost as much as eating it. If you don't want to know what's in your fruit/milk/meat, don't invite her to lunch. @babybokchoy | TakePart.com