Activist groups sue EPA over livestock database rule

Environmentalists and animal activists want EPA to move forward with its rule to allow for publication of CAFO information to increase transparency.

A coalition of community, animal welfare and environmental organizations filed a lawsuit against the United States Environmental Protection Agency challenging the Agency’s withdrawal of a proposed rule that would have allowed EPA to collect information such as locations and animal population sizes from livestock farms.

The Center for Food Safety, Environmental Integrity Project, Food & Water Watch, The Humane Society of the United States, and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement filed the suit in the U.S District Court for the District of Columbia, arguing that the Agency’s withdrawal of the proposed rule lacks the rational basis required by law. The groups state the information at issue is critical to the EPA’s ability to protect waterways from pollutants produced by factory farms, one of the country’s largest sources of water pollution.  (View the complaint.)

EPA started gathering information from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations to make it publicly available and searchable through its Website in 2012, but then withdrew the rule to do so after concerns from livestock producers about activists harassing farmers or posing a threat to the nation's food supply. Despite the agency pulling the rule, environmental groups were able to obtain the information through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

In a statement from the groups, it explained that EPA now claims that instead of using its authority under the Clean Water Act to gather information directly from CAFO owners and operators, it will seek to gather existing information about CAFOs from various state and federal agencies.

'This approach contradicts recent government reports, which confirm that state agency CAFO data is 'inconsistent and inaccurate and does not provide EPA with the reliable data it needs…' and that 'no federal agency collects accurate and consistent data on the number, size, and location of CAFOs,'" the statement noted.

"This legal action asserts the EPA’s change in position is arbitrary because alternative courses of action cannot provide the crucial information," the groups added.

Under the abandoned rule, known as CWA Section 308 Rule, the agency was to begin gathering this basic information. The proposed CWA Section 308 Rule made a strong case for the need for information collection based on inadequate existing data.  Following strong industry opposition, EPA withdrew the rule. In its rule withdrawal, EPA radically shifted its position without justification. 

In the fall of 2012, several environmental organizations filed Freedom of Information Act requests with EPA for all of the state-generated data gathered by the Agency. After industry browbeating, the Agency attempted to recall some of the records that it originally produced.  Nevertheless, Food & Water Watch retained and reviewed all of the original records.

Wenonah Hauter, executive director at Food & Water Watch, stated, “Our review of these records confirms what EPA has already admitted in its preamble to the 308 Rule. The data from the states is inconsistent, incomplete and, ultimately, will not allow the agency to finally begin the process of properly regulating these highly polluting facilities.”

“With the withdrawal, EPA continues to pursue a CAFO pollution control policy that can only be described as willful ignorance," said George Kimbrell, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety. "As long as EPA continues to turn an unlawfully blind eye towards this industry, our waterways and communities will never be safe.”

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