broiler chickens Credit: buhanovskiy/iStock/Thinkstock.

Advocacy group sues USDA over CAFO approval

Lawsuit alleges USDA’s Farm Service Agency failed to adequately consider environmental impacts of Maryland chicken farm seeking farm loan.

Food & Water Watch has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Farm Service Agency (FSA) seeking vacatur of agency decisions that guaranteed loans and allowed construction of a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) in the Choptank River watershed on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

The CAFO is located upstream from the Chesapeake Bay, where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and surrounding states have undertaken extensive agricultural pollution cleanup efforts. Among other allegations, the complaint asserts that USDA’s environmental assessment found that the CAFO’s density would conform to industry standards but that the actual density is nearly double those standards, resulting in higher-than-average waste concentration, air and water pollution.

The federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires agencies like FSA to assess the environmental impacts of certain actions, including loan guarantees to large farms. The plaintiff argues that the agencies: failed to consider adequate alternatives; failed to address biological resources, groundwater, surface water or air quality; improperly relied on proposed mitigation measures; failed to consider the cumulative impacts of the CAFO, and improperly made a finding of no significant environmental impact.

The suit alleges that FSA’s review fell far short of what NEPA requires in an environmental assessment, including that it failed to adequately consider the cumulative effects of its lending actions and the growth of the poultry industry on the Eastern Shore. FSA has issued dozens of loans and loan guarantees to chicken producers in Maryland, amounting to more than $47 million of financing between 2009 and 2015.

“If the Farm Service Agency had properly considered the harmful impacts this facility would impose, both on its own and in combination with many other poultry facilities, the environmental assessment would have shown that this is not the type of chicken production facility that Maryland needs more of,” Food & Water Watch executive eirector Wenonah Hauter said.

The facility has capacity to house 192,000 chickens at a time, producing more than 1 million chickens and 1,000 tons of chicken waste each year. It is located next to Watts Creek in Caroline County, Md., which flows into the Choptank River and, eventually, into the Chesapeake Bay.

Public records also show that the Maryland Department of Agriculture and governor’s office intervened in the FSA environmental assessment process, urging the agency to expedite its approval of the loan guarantee on behalf of the loan applicant. FSA issued its approval just days later.

Tarah Heinzen, an attorney for Food & Water Watch, said if "political interference" by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan's administration in the FSA review process "affected its decision to approve the loan guarantee for this factory farm, the court should throw out the agency’s analysis. NEPA requires a legitimate review of environmental impacts, and politics should not come into play. It was completely inappropriate for the administration to put its thumb on the scale.”

The lawsuit asks the court to nullify the FSA environmental assessment and declare that it was inadequate, among other relief. Food & Water Watch is represented by Earthrise Law Center at Lewis & Clark Law School.

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