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Climate, environmental groups want EPA to target CAFOs

Getty Images EPA sign GettyImages-1174209350.jpg
Letter from 218 organizations says CAFOs represent environmental justice crisis that has gone unaddressed.

A letter sent July 19 to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan urges him to immediately act on the EPA’s existing authority to provide federal oversight of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.

EPA has several pending rulemaking petitions before it, including petitions to list industrial dairy and hog operations under Section 111 of the Clean Air Act; rescind the Air Consent Agreement and enforce Clean Air Laws against CAFOs; and revise Clean Water Act regulations as they apply to CAFOs. The agency has not acted on any of the petitions, but a release from Friends of the Earth says, “EPA is expected to propose a rule in December that would repeal a Trump-era rule exempting CAFOs from the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.”

The letter signed by 218 organizations alleges that “CAFOs represent an environmental justice crisis that has gone unaddressed by – and has even been exacerbated by – EPA for decades” and urges EPA to “end the regulatory exceptionalism for the industrial livestock agribusinesses profiting from the exploitation of environmental justice communities.”

In January 2021, President Biden signed Executive Orders on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad and on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, which establish environmental justice and racial equity as administration priorities. In EPA’s 2022-2026 Strategic Plan, the agency confirmed its commitment to “follow the science, follow the law, and be transparent” and added “a fourth foundational principle: advance justice and equity” as the basis for the agency’s culture and approach to its operations and decision-making.

“We commend these commitments but contend that the EPA is failing to uphold them by abdicating its responsibility to protect rural communities living near CAFOs,” the letter says.

The letter states that CAFOs generate as much as 1 billion tons of manure each year, more than three times as much waste as humans. The letter cites a 2021 study that found approximately 12,700 deaths per year from air pollution in the U.S. that are attributable to livestock production. “That is more deaths than occur from pollution from coal plants, yet EPA has largely shielded industrial livestock integrators and their web of CAFOs from oversight,” the letter says.

Through its AgSTAR program, EPA has supported CAFOs with installing methane digesters, which the groups write “have failed to curb or, in some cases, exacerbated these air and water co-pollutants and associated adverse public health impacts for communities.”

“If EPA is serious about protecting communities from environmental racism and mitigating climate change, the agency must take meaningful and immediate action to rein in the harms from CAFOs,” says Adriane Busby, senior food and climate policy analyst at Friends of the Earth.

Navina Khanna, Executive Director of the HEAL Food Alliance, adds, "Animal agriculture systems that respect the life of those animals, surrounding communities, and local ecosystems are possible. For them to be economically successful, there must be a system of checks and balances that holds corporations accountable for externalizing the costs of factory farms. We demand the EPA step up and begin regulating and rectifying the harm to our health and safety now.”

The letter coincides with a hearing taking place the same day in the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment, focused on Regenerative Agriculture: How Farmers and Ranchers are Essential to Solving Climate Change and Increasing Food Production.   

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