EPA flip-flops on key proposed regulation
Barack Obama's Environmental Protection Agency has flip-flopped on a proposal to keep closer tabs on large livestock farms.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama promised that "the Environmental Protection Agency will strictly monitor and regulate pollution from large Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) -- which raise more than 40 percent of U.S. livestock -- with fines for those who violate tough air and water quality standards."
Under enforcement mechanisms that began before Obama took office, the EPA estimates that it conducted more than 900 CAFO inspections between 2008 and 2010, reducing or treating more than 7 million pounds of pollutants annually in 2009 and 2010.
Still, in the key battle over CAFOs, the EPA backed off a key proposal.
At first, critics of "factory farms” and their plus-sized animal waste issues were pleased with an agreement EPA signed in May 2010 to settle a lawsuit brought by a coalition of environmental and other groups. EPA pledged to require that all CAFOs report missing information -- a precursor to prioritizing resources on the worst polluters. The information would include the location of facilities, the number and types of animals on site, and the methods used to store and dispose of animal waste.
However, in July 2012, EPA withdrew the rule it had proposed. "Although collecting CAFO information is important, the agency believes an efficient approach that does not duplicate efforts is the appropriate next step,” the agency said. Instead, EPA said it will rely on information collected by "existing sources of information,” including other programs at the federal, state, and local level.
The turnabout was "frankly inexplicable,” said Jon Devine, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which was one of the plaintiffs in the suit that led to the 2010 settlement.
Rather than taking "a very simple approach – requiring CAFOs around the country to submit basic information to the agency by filling out an uncomplicated survey – EPA is instead embarking on a year and a half of spelunking through state files, which are certain to be incomplete, inconsistent, and out of date in many instances,” Devine said.
By spring 2013, the EPA said it would propose rule revisions as part of an agreement to settle a lawsuit by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. But it's not yet clear whether those revisions would directly affect CAFOs.
The Obama EPA has continued to enforce regulations that predated the administration, but it has backtracked on a plan that would have collected information needed to prioritize its enforcement actions. This is a significant enough reversal for us to rate this a Promise Broken.
Environmental Protection Agency, "CAFO Rule History,” accessed Nov. 21, 2012
Environmental Protection Agency, "National Enforcement Initiatives for Fiscal Years 2008 - 2010: Clean Water Act: Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations," accessed Nov. 21, 2012
Environmental Protection Agency, "EPA Reaches Settlement in Chesapeake Bay Lawsuit,” May 11, 2010
Natural Resources Defense Council, "NRDC lawsuit settlement will help protect water from factory farm waste,” (blog post), May 26, 2010
Natural Resources Defense Council, "EPA Chickens Out by Dropping Industrial Livestock Information Collection Effort,” (blog post), July 24, 2012
Email interview with Jon Devine, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Nov. 21, 2012
Obama targets large-scale livestock farms
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations -- known as CAFOs in farming parlance -- became a target during President Barack Obama's campaign.
As a candidate, Obama said that under his watch the Environmental Protection Agency would strictly regulate the large-scale ranching operations, the largest contributor of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution in Chesapeake Bay, according to the EPA.
Obama has taken some initial steps.
On May 12, 2009, Obama signed an executive order recognizing the bay as a national treasure and laying the groundwork to clean up the polluted body of water.
In part, the executive order required a draft report from the Environmental Protection Agency outlining how the government might tighten regulations to protect the bay. The report, released in September 2009, singled out CAFOs as a primary source of pollution and represents an early step in a long federal rulemaking process meant to clean up the body of water.
Regulating pollution from CAFOs should be included in the strategy, the document said. New regulations could include expanding the definition of CAFOs to bring more operations under EPA oversight and strengthening CAFO permit requirements.
So, Obama has taken the first steps in making good on his promise to impose stricter regulations on CAFOs. But the process is far from over. For now, we'll rate this one In the Works.
The Environmental Protection Agency, The Next Generation of Tools and Actions to Restore Water Quality in the Chesapeake Bay , accessed Dec. 4, 2009