Factory Farms Left Alone to Pollute At Will

By FRANK CARINI

There are some 20,000 concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the United States, and despite the fact these factory farms produce three times as much waste as the U.S. human population, these facilities are less regulated than Wall Street.

Although CAFO waste contains pathogens, heavy metals, hormones and antibiotics — in 2011, nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics were sold for use in food animals, roughly four times the amount sold to treat people — the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn’t require all factory farms to meet waste management and treatment requirements. Small wonder then that pollutants produced by factory farms are one of the country’s largest sources of water pollution.

So while toxic swill pumped full of antibiotics from many of these meat and poultry factories flows willy-nilly into vital waterways, homeowners who renovate their basements are legally forced to install handrails — presumably to help those sickened by factory-farm pollution get down narrow stairways.

Our long list of arbitrary regulations, most adopted because of who or who didn’t lobby for them, is mind-numbing. Nationally, we’ll fine anyone who isn’t wearing a seatbelt while driving a car, but only 19 states require the person driving a motorcycle to wear a helmet.

Many of our wanton laws are simply geared to advance special interests and the bottom line of Big Business rather than actually protect public health. We pull repeatedly on low-hanging fruit and ignore the hard-to-reach pieces that are poisoning the environment and our health.

We’re vigilant when it comes to requiring young children to be strapped into certified car seats, whose specifications change almost annually. We even have a network of Child Car Seat Inspection Stations.

Meanwhile, we can’t afford or be bothered to properly inspect and regulate the COFAs that are fouling the air our kids breathe and the water they drink and dousing the food our children eat with chemicals, hormones and antibiotics. We allow Big Ag to basically self-regulate. A half-dozen or so states that are home to Big Ag and its pollution-spewing, animal-torturing industrial farms have laws in place that make it a crime to take photos or shoot video of these operations, even if you aren’t on the property, without owner consent.

In 2012, Missouri became the first state to pass an anti-whistleblower law that emphasizes “quick reporting.” Those who suspect animal abuse at a factory farm “must provide the recording to a law enforcement agency with 24 hours” or face charges. Basically, the law stops whistleblowers and journalists from building more compelling cases that could result in bigger penalties.

While the National Security (NSA) is snooping through everyone’s personal life, a coalition of community, animal welfare and environmental organizations is forced to file a lawsuit that is simply asking that locations and animal population sizes of factory farms be better known.

The recently filed lawsuit against the EPA is challenging the agency’s withdrawal of a proposed law that would have allowed it to collect that basic information. Apparently, though, the public hasn’t earned the right to know, despite forking over tens of billions of dollars in federal subsidies that have helped Big Ag smackdown small family farms.

“Our ask is modest; we are urging EPA to fulfill its mission and start to get a better understanding about one of the largest sources of pollution threatening our nation’s rivers, streams and bays,” said Tarah Heinzen, an attorney with Environmental Integrity Project. “It’s a sad commentary on the agency when we have to go to court to get that accomplished.”

Sad indeed, but it has become the American Way to put public health, animal welfare and environmental protections a distant second to industrialized food production, even if many of the jobs the industry offers are dangerous and pay less than minimum wage.

Factory farms are industrial facilities that confine thousands of animals in limited areas as they are primed for meat, dairy and egg production. As Matthew Scully wrote in an essay entitled “The Case for Compassionate Conservatism—for Animals,” “Instead of redesigning the factory farm to suit the animals, they are redesigning the animals to suit the factory farm."

To increase profits and deal with the bacteria that thrives in CAFOs, the products these facilities manufacture are cut with pink slime, swimming in antibiotics and sprayed with ammonia.

The operations that would have been subject to the EPA-pulled law are the factory farms that fall within the point-source category under the federal Clean Water Act, a category that consists of the nation’s largest and dirtiest operations.

But lightly regulated CAFOs, supporters incessantly argue, are needed to keep retail prices down. Of course, these industrial “job creators,” their well-paid legion of lobbyists and the politicians who enable them conveniently ignore the immense impacts factory farms have on public health, the environment and other shared resources. The clean-up bill of this folly will be paid by future generations, long after CEO and shareholder pockets have been lined and political campaigns financed.

The EPA, in a 1998 report, admitted that hog, chicken and cattle waste had polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and significantly contaminated groundwater in 17 states. In the 15 years since that report was released, little has been done to better protect our waterways from CAFO pollution. Today, U.S. factory farms generate about 500 million tons of waste annually.

But you, the taxpayer, make sure you fasten your seatbelt, buy the right car seat for your child and have a handrail on your basement stairs. Remember, you're being watched.

Frank Carini is the editor of ecoRI News.