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embarking on a year and a half of spelunking through state files, which are certain to be incomplete, inconsistent, and out of date in many instances," Devine said.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.