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Proposed legislation extends Clean Water Act liability

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Congressmen Ro Khanna and Mark Pocan say it is only fair that large companies share liability with contract farmers

Two “friends” of production agriculture introduced a bill in Congress named, “The Farmer Fairness Act.” The proposed legislation would extend Clean Water Act liability to companies that control how livestock is fed, medicated and housed. The bill has support from Food and Water Watch, National Farmers Union, and the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement.

Congressman Ro Khanna, D-Calif., stated “Large agribusiness companies like Tyson and Perdue buy livestock and animal products from farmers. The companies control the way livestock is fed, medicated and housed. They dictate what equipment and capital the farmer must use. Farmers often don’t make enough to live off of because the cost of the operations…leaves the farmer in the red. Through all of this, the farmer takes on the liability (especially environmental liability) of the operation.”  

The bill introduced is to amend the CWA and it will require “…all persons exercising substantial operational control over a concentrated animal feeding operation [CAFO] to jointly obtain a permit for certain discharges and for other purposes.”

The bill is fairly short and probably has little chance of passing. One section of the bill is particularly interesting. A key section defines “Substantial Operational Control.” This section is meant to require an integrator to obtain a CWA or NPDES permit should one be required. Most CAFOs are no discharge facilities and are not required to have an NPDES permit. The definition of substantial operation in the bill includes a person who has an ownership interest in the livestock, land or some capital in the CAFO. The key section is the one which says there is substantial control if an integrator “…exercises any control over the activities, operation (including specifying how the livestock of the concentrated animal feeding operation is fed, grown, or medicated), or management (including waste management practices of a concentrated animal feeding operation;“ The last provision gives the EPA Administrator virtually unlimited power when the bill states if a CAFO “…meets any other criteria that the administrator determines appropriate.”

Rep. Khanna and his colleague, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., believe it is only fair that large companies share liability with contract farmers. Because integrator companies have contracts with farmers who assume all the environmental liability, the congressmen, not recognizing the value of manure, want to require integrators to have CWA permits along with the farmer.

Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union president, applauds the two congressmen for insuring fairness and protection for family farmers. Mr. Jonson also stated, “Contract farmers are subject to a wide range of unfair practices at the hands of integrators,…”

Rep. Khanna, the lead sponsor of this bill, represents California’s 17th congressional district. He is the first vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. His official biography claims he is “…committed to representing the people and ideas rooted in Silicon Valley to the nation and throughout the world. His biography also claims he is for “…job training programs, economic development initiatives, re-wiring (whatever that means) the U.S. labor market, and debt-free college to help working families to prepare for the future”. Rep. Khanna was born in the agricultural center of Philadelphia, Penn., and taught economics at Stanford University. He also graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Chicago and received a law degree from Yale University.  His biography also claims “…he walked precincts during Barack Obama”s first campaign for the Illinois Senate…”

Rep. Pocan, the other sponsor, has been a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly and lists among his many associations a member of Clean Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Environmental Decade. He also serves as a member of the powerful Committee on House Appropriations.  You may note that neither of the congressmen have any ties to agriculture or suggest any understanding of animal agriculture. Let’s hope their proposed bill receives as much notoriety as both congressmen do, which appears to be zero. 

The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Farm Progress. 

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