Livestock industry groups applauded the Environmental Protection Agency’s retreat last year from establishing an information-gathering rule.
Michael Formica, of the National Pork Producers’ Council, said the rule simply would have burdened farmers with pointless paperwork.
“You want your farmers focused on farming and running the farm, you don’t want them worried about filling out one inane form after another,” he said.
Industry leaders also expressed satisfaction that it would be more difficult for the EPA to get information without a law compelling disclosure.
Ashley McDonald, deputy environmental counsel for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said his organization was pleased the effort would be more “labor intensive” because the data is “in a decentralized form that is much more difficult to ascertain.”
Among the places the EPA won’t be getting the information is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, even though the agency collects much of it. During closed-door negotiations, an amendment to the 2008 Farm Bill was added that makes information submitted to the agency for subsidy and grant applications off-limits to the public and other federal agencies, in most cases.
Even though the proposed information-gathering rule was withdrawn nine months ago, people still are fighting over it.
The environmental groups that were party to the original settlement, including Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council, are weighing whether to sue the EPA. To help determine if they have a case, they filed a Freedom of Information Act request for correspondence between the agency and outside groups and information it collected during the decision-making process.
They got back information collected from 29 states with names, addresses and other information about some producers. Much of the information, the agency has said, is publicly available on the Internet and was not disseminated by the environmental groups. Many in meat industry groups were furious.
But others reject the argument that disclosing the location of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, poses a major security threat, arguing that information about far more critical sites — such as power plants and hospitals — is freely available. “And we’re worried about a chicken farm?” Edwards said.
In April, eight Republican senators sent the EPA’s acting administrator a letter demanding answers about the information release. Forty House members – all but two of them Republicans — sent a similar letter. The lawmakers urged the agency to abandon any effort to assemble a public database and instead “refocus your efforts to ensure that the recent release of data is not misused in a way that threatens our Nation’s producers and the integrity of the food supply.”
This month, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association asked the Environmental Protection Agency’s Inspector General to investigate.
In the absence of strong federal or state oversight, citizen groups have tried to play a role, said Patrick Parenteau, a law professor at Vermont Law School, but their success has been mixed.
Lori Nelson’s activist group, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, claims success blocking the construction of factory farms last year but an effort by the Waterkeeper Alliance to crack down on alleged pollution by a chicken farm in Maryland backfired badly. Not only was the alliance’s suit against the farm and poultry giant Perdue Farms dismissed, but now the erstwhile defendants are asking the judge to order the environmental groups to pay $3 million in legal fees.
Parenteau said the threat of legal fees could have a chilling effect. “It says to these groups: The price you may pay for bringing a suit that you lose may be your ruin.”
That seems to be what Perdue – the nation’s third-largest chicken producer – is going for. “Simply put, awarding litigation fees is the most effective way to discourage the Waterkeeper Alliance form doing more of the same,” a lawyer for Perdue said in a statement in February.
Meanwhile, agribusiness and sympathetic lawmakers are trying to shield the industry from scrutiny from regulators and environmental groups. Over the last two years a dozen states have considered, and three states have passed, so-called “Ag-gag” bills. They would make it illegal for activists to shoot undercover video in livestock farms or apply for a job under false pretenses.
Gov. Branstad signed Iowa’s “Ag-gag” bill into law in early 2012, making it illegal for individuals to produce, possess or distribute an audio or video recording of an agriculture facility. A National Institute on Money in State Politics report shows almost 10 percent of the $8.9 million Branstad raised in his 2010 gubernatorial campaign came from the agriculture industry.
In addition, there is a push to beef up the “Right to Farm laws” in some of the 50 states that already have such legislation on the books. While varying from state-to-state, these provisions largely originated in the 1980s as a way to defend farmland against encroaching development and new neighbors who might object to the sounds and smells of agriculture.
Lately there has been an effort to insert in state constitutions a right to farm — a right not spelled out for other occupations. North Dakota in November became the first state to amend its constitution to permanently guarantee the right to use “modern farming and ranching practices.”
Other states, like Wisconsin, have amended their Right to Farm laws to pre-empt local communities’ ability to impose tougher rules on factory farms. The state is seeing a fast increase in the number of industrial dairies. In 1990, there were just two dairy CAFOs. Today, there are 216, according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Gov. Scott Walker is pushing for more expansion.
All told, critics such as Parenteau wonder if there ever will be a way to bring CAFO pollution under control. The sheer scale of industrial livestock production might be unmanageable by definition, he said. “It’s a bigger, cultural and economic question: Can we really afford the damage that these massive agricultural operations are doing?”
But he acknowledges there’s no real forum for that conversation: “Congress certainly isn’t interested in having that discussion, so there we are,” he said. “We’re kind of stuck.”
FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org) is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit investigative news organization focused on public health and safety issues.