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Serving: United States

USDA rule to help large livestock farms cut red tape is challenged in court

Environmental groups sue to overturn a rule exempting medium-sized CAFO farms from environmental impact statements.

USDA and its Farm Service Agency issued a regulation on Aug. 3, 2016 which categorically excluded FSA funding grants or loans of medium-sized animal feeding operations from National Environmental Policy Act review. Environmental groups have sued to overturn this USDA-FSA rule.

Prior to the 2016 rule, FSA performed Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) reviews to assess the impact of a government loan or loan guarantee to a farm building a medium-sized CAFO. A medium-sized CAFO was defined as 350 dairy cows, 500 feedlot cattle, 1250 hogs, 27,500 turkeys, and 50,000 chickens.

FSA would undertake an EIS study before loans or loan guarantees were approved. FSA wanted to check on the impacts CAFOs would have on the community and the environment. It provided this information to the public before USDA dispersed funds to a farmer.

When is an EIS not needed?

FSA’s new medium CAFO categorical exclusion stated in 2016 that an EIS or EA (Environmental Assessment) would not need to be filed if a farmer had as many as 699 dairy cows, 999 fat cattle, 2,499 hogs, 54,999 turkeys, and 124,999 chickens. These are known as medium-sized CAFO’s.

In providing loans, FSA assumed facilities of the size mentioned would have no or limited environmental impact and the facility was exempted from an analysis under NEPA.

In other words, a lengthy EIS and public hearing, which could take years, would not be required of a medium-size CAFO.

The list of plaintiffs

The complaint filed on Dec. 5, 2018, was brought by the following environmental groups:

  • Dakota Rural Action, which was founded in South Dakota and represents over 900 members that advocate against federal policies that favor corporate CAFO owners “…over sustainable livestock ranchers.”
  • Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, which claims to combat climate change and hold corporations accountable for their greenhouse gas footprints. The Institute also works to eliminate public subsidies and loans in farm bills.
  • Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement claims to have 5,100 dues paying members and claims to visit FSA offices to discuss FSA guaranteed loans to medium-sized CAFOs.
  • Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana claims it monitors zoning ordinances and local decisions that relate to CAFO’s and how they impact affected communities.
  • Food and Water Watch claims it stands up to corporations “…that put profits before people and advocating for a democracy that improves people’s lives and protects the environment.” This non-profit is located in the “farming state” of District of Columbia and claims to be engaged in “…numerous campaigns to hold the CAFO industry accountable for its adverse impacts on rural communities and the environment and to hold the government accountable for the unchecked pollution and consolidation of the livestock industry.”

There are other plaintiffs, but you get the idea of the groups fighting FSA’s rule.

Here are the charges

The environmental groups believed they are harmed by not doing an Environmental Impact Statement on medium-sized CAFOs. In fact, plaintiffs’ claim “Medium CAFOs do, in fact, pose substantial risk to the environment and to public health by creating surface water, ground water, and air pollution, as well as antimicrobial resistance problems. CAFOs also harm the quality of life and depress property values of those living and recreating in close proximity to the facilities.”

The environmental groups in their 57-page complaint claim that medium-sized CAFOs are one of the largest sources of air pollution in the country. It is also claimed that CAFOs use large ventilation fans to emit pollutants and those dangerous gases “…that collect inside the buildings, which can-and do-sicken and kill confined animals and employees.”

The plaintiffs claim that CAFOs are one of the largest sources of water pollution in the country. They cite EPA: “…CAFOs now account for a significant share of the remaining water pollution problems in the United States.”

In fact, EPA is cited as saying “Indeed, agriculture is the leading contributor of pollutants to identified water impairments in the Nation’s rivers and streams.”

The remainder of the complaint lists all the horrors created by CAFOs. Another legal attack is underway!

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

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