A look inside a clean water regulator's mind
One of the biggest water polluters in our country is the factory farm. In 2008, a Government Accountability Office report panned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to know where most of these farms were located, let alone if they were releasing their manure into rivers, lakes and streams.
So in early 2011, the EPA announced a rule asking such farms, known as CAFOs, to submit basic information, like their address and how many animals they have, to the agency. On Friday, July 20, EPA quietly announced they were withdrawing that rule, planning instead to try to collect the data from the existing records held by states, even though they've tried that before, with poor results.
In trying to understand why the EPA would back off such a seemingly-innocuous yet important data collection project, I imagined myself inside a meeting of EPA clean water officials as they made the decision to withdraw the rule.
Setting: A 10-top table in a soulless gray-hued conference room, Federal Triangle, Washington, D.C.
Official One: (storms into room, slams hand on table): I wish those House Republicans would all go on a schmoozy farm tour and fall into a manure lagoon! I can't believe they accused us of flying spy drones over American farms.
Official Two: (looking worn): Well, we are flying planes over factory farms in Nebraska and Iowa.
Official One: That's because we can't enforce the Clean Water Act without aerial inspections. Ever since the National Pork Producer's Council sued us, the only way we can know if factory farms are polluting the water is if they tell us by applying for a discharge permit--
Official Two: Not likely
Official One: Or if we check up on them with flyovers, where we can see manure flowing into waterways.
Official Two: Well, our work will get a little easier when we at least know how many factory farms there are, how many animals they have, where they are located, and how they manage their manure. I mean, how can we regulate the biggest source of water pollution in the country if we don't even know where they are?
Official One: Yeah, I'm glad we're going to release that rule requiring CAFOs to report those details to us soon. We've been working at getting better intel on them for over a decade!
Enter Official Three
Official Three (looking dejected): Hi guys.
Officials One and Two: Hey.
Official Three: So…you know how it's an election year, and those Nebraska senators just gave us a bunch of shit for the aerial flights over CAFOs? That's not playing too well in the farm belt.
Official One: Yeah?
Official Three: Yeah. And all the big agricultural lobby groups, like the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council are saying that us collecting data on them is going to open up large farms to agriterrorism. I know that's bullshit, but in rural America, this data collection effort just looks like more government meddling.
Official One: But these guys are in an industrial occupation! Their cows, pigs, and chickens produce three times as much poop as all Americans every year. And we don't even know where it's going! Not knowing where they're located or what they are doing with their waste is like not knowing where sewage treatment plants are located, and if they are following the correct protocol for managing waste.
Official Three: Well, it's just going to have to wait. We're going to withdraw our rule requiring CAFOs to report basic data.
Official Two: People who care about clean water are going to be pissed.
Official Three: Well, we are going to try and work with the states to gather that information from them.
Official One: Hah! Remember when the Government Accountability Office said all the data we gathered from states about their CAFOs was inaccurate and unreliable? And aren't we about to release a report showing that Iowa, which has the most pig factory farms in the nation, isn't enforcing the Clean Water Act on those farms?
Official Three: I know, but it's really the only option right now. So deal with it. We're going to work with the Association of Clean Water Administrators to get the data on CAFOs from states, and maybe this time around it will be a little better.
It's not like anyone gives a damn about clean water when they're about to run out of unemployment insurance anyway. If you don't like it, move to the Netherlands. They regulated their dairy CAFOs so strict that half of them moved over here.
Official Two: Okay. So let me get this straight. We're withdrawing our proposal to collect information about addresses, contact details, animal numbers, and manure management on 20,000 of the nation's most polluting farms, even though we have a legal agreement with three major environmental groups saying we will do this?
Official Three: Yes. But maybe we'll release the withdrawal notice late on a Friday, after everyone's left the office.
Well, it's four-o-clock. Want to hit up Harry's? I'm buying.
Stephanie Paige Ogburn is the online editor at High Country News.
Conference room photo courtesy Flickr user Phil Sexton.
Image of New Mexico dairy CAFO courtesy the author.