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Jon Devine’s Blog

Where's the beef? House version of the Farm Bill seeks to hide polluting livestock facilities

Jon Devine

Posted November 20, 2013 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment, U.S. Law and Policy

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The legislation known as the Farm Bill, which sets agriculture policy and priorities for the nation, is nearing completion on Capitol Hill.  Key Representatives and Senators are meeting in what’s called a “conference” committee to reconcile their different versions of the bill.  There are many issues being debated, but I’d like to highlight one that you may not have heard of, despite the fact that it’s attempting to hide 300 million tons of potential pollution from public scrutiny. 

Section 11325 of the House version of the Farm Bill would prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from sharing information the agency obtained from “agricultural operations” with the public.  The provision is a threat to citizens’ ability to learn about massive waste-producing industrial livestock operations.  And though it’d be dangerous enough if it were limited to what it clearly is trying to keep hidden, the provision is so sloppily written that it could hide all manner of things about this industry from the public, and could even require EPA to hide already public information.  As the Lincoln (Nebraska) Journal-Star’s editorial board put it, it’s “a step in the wrong direction.” It must not be included in the committee’s final bill.

Industrial livestock operations (also known as "concentrated animal feeding operations" or "CAFOs") generate nasty waste.  Animal manure contains bacteria, viruses and other pathogens, as well as organic compounds, heavy metals, antibiotics, pesticides, and hormones.  Given that, one would think that sharing information about these facilities would help people better protect themselves and their families from waste that reaches the waterways they care about.  Unfortunately, the House's Farm Bill provision goes in the exact opposite direction.

It is also a misguided attempt to fix a non-problem.  The measure's proponents will say that it would prevent EPA from disclosing private personal information about farmers in response to requests under the Freedom of Information Act.  But the truth of the matter is that FOIA already protects truly private information

What FOIA doesn’t – and shouldn’t – prevent from release are things like where industrial livestock facilities are located.  Ask yourself: if you lived downstream from an animal operation that generated as much waste as a city and that didn’t remove the contaminants from the waste before applying it to fields from which it could run off, wouldn’t you want to know?  But the House Farm Bill measure would explicitly bar EPA from making facilities’ location public unless the facility operator agrees to the disclosure.

Without public information about industrial livestock facilities’ locations, people may not know which water bodies could be at risk of pollution when they’re deciding where to fish, swim, or live, or who is responsible when spills do occur.

If that weren’t bad enough, the provision would seem to require EPA to remove some information from the public domain that has been available for some time.  For example, EPA’s existing Envirofacts database has basic information – including location -- about permitted livestock facilities, along with similar information about sewage treatment plants, various industrial sites, and other operations authorized to discharge to the nation’s waterways.  If this provision is included in the Farm Bill, EPA may have to go through all of its permit and other files and remove from public view information that involves livestock producers.  This despite the fact that the information has already been public for some time and the various doomsday scenarios that the industry suggests might happen have apparently not come to pass.

Moreover, the House provision limits EPA’s ability to share this information with citizens so much that, in the event a livestock operator reports a waste spill or other public health emergency to EPA, it’s not apparent from the provision that the agency can even warn neighbors that they could be at risk. 

Finally, this section is so poorly written that it’s anyone’s guess as to how it will be applied, which should be reason alone not to taint the Farm Bill with it.  For one thing, it’s overly broad – it bars the release of “information” in general, “including” certain listed pieces of information.  But it doesn’t exclude anything, meaning it could potentially apply to any fact about a particular facility obtained from the operation -- the amount of waste it generates, what the manure management practices are, whether the facility has any past violations of the law, etc.  Other terms are similarly vague.  Take “agricultural operation” -- as defined by the House, it would include ANY facility that raises an agricultural commodity crop.  So, if a chemical manufacturing facility has a rooftop garden, might it qualify to hide its operations from public review? 

We shouldn’t carve out a special exemption from important clean water protections for one industry.  House and Senate conferees must not include this provision in the final Farm Bill, so that people who live downstream from industrial livestock facilities will continue to be able to exercise their rights to know what their government is doing to protect their families from potentially harmful waste.   

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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