A coalition of eight groups filed suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its current procedures that exempt medium-sized concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) from additional environmental reviews by the government and requiring notice of their planned operations to neighbors in the affected areas.
The groups bringing the suit are the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Association of Irritated Residents (California), Citizens Action Coalition (Indiana), Dakota Rural Action (South Dakota), Food & Water Watch, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy and White River Waterkeeper (Arkansas.).
USDA’s rule change, adopted in 2016 by the Farm Service Agency, grants exemptions from the usual process of notice, comment and oversight in cases where the government is providing taxpayer-subsidized loans to CAFOs considered “medium-sized” by USDA. Such facilities are authorized to hold nearly 125,000 chickens, 55,000 turkeys, 2,500 pigs, 1,000 beef cattle or 700 dairy cows. Prior to 2016, FSA performed environmental analyses under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to assess the impact of government loans or loan guarantees to CAFOs that confined at least 350 dairy cows, 500 cattle, 1250 pigs, 27,500 turkeys and 50,000 chickens.
In the suit, the groups argued that NEPA analyses — which took place before loans or loan guarantees were approved — served two important purposes.
“First, they provided a governmental check on the negative externalities of industrial animal feeding operations, which have long been established as having serious effects on communities and the environment," according to the suit. "Second, the analyses provided neighbors, nearby farmers and advocacy groups — like the plaintiffs here — with notice of the planned development of new facilities or expansion of existing ones as well as information about their risks, enabling the public to provide input and raise concerns before the federal government disbursed funds.”
The plaintiffs requested that the court declare illegal and issue an injunction requiring USDA to withdraw the Medium CAFO Categorical Exemption rule.
The lawsuit alleges that both the rule-making process and the final rule now being implemented by the Trump Administration violate NEPA and the Administrative Procedure Act by failing to provide adequate notice of the proposed rule change and refusing to clarify why medium-sized CAFOs should be provided this special treatment and automatically exempt. Between the rule’s implementation in August 2016 and December 2017, the government allowed 40 such operations in four Arkansas counties alone with no public comment or environmental assessment. During the same time frame, eight such operations in Iowa, housing nearly 20,000 pigs and generating as much untreated sewage as a town of 200,000 residents, were also allowed to escape any assessment or comment period, the groups said.
“Responsible agricultural operations that are committed to being both good neighbors and good stewards of the communities in which they operate have nothing to fear from notice to the community and an assessment of their operations,” the coalition said in the lawsuit. “This irresponsible change in the rules that have helped protect rural and small communities for decades is, instead, designed to protect polluters and undermine transparency. Small family farms and their neighbors are disadvantaged, while huge corporations are given a government green light to operate with impunity. That’s not only morally wrong; it’s clearly illegal, too. Though we represent a broad and diverse coalition of citizens and advocates from across the country, we are all alarmed at the impact of this change and share a common goal of ensuring USDA looks out for family farms and rural communities, and not just the interests of giant corporations.”