by Allie Molinaro
Water is the lifeblood of all living beings on Earth. However, human activities have deeply compromised the availability of the clean water we need to sustain ourselves. This World Water Day, it is more urgent than ever to recognize the inextricable link between clean water, factory farming, and animal welfare, and what we must do to protect this vital resource.
U.S. livestock generate over 1 billion tons of manure each year, equal to the weight of over 3,000 Empire State Buildings. In factory farming operations, waste is often held in open-air manure lagoons or pits, covered buildings, or dry stockpiles. Manure and other wastewater from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) can release pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorus, organic matter, sediments, pathogens, hormones, and antibiotics into the environment. Spills, overflows, excessive rain, leaks, runoff, and infiltration can all cause these pollutants to make their way into U.S. waters, including into the ones we use for recreation and drinking water. This pollution can have a wide range of adverse effects, such as:
- Illness from pathogens such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Campylobacter
- Facilitation of antibiotic resistance and increased antibiotic-resistant infections
- Fish kills and other wildlife mortality from oxygen depletion, ammonia toxicity, and cyanobacteria from harmful algal blooms
- Greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change
- Increased soil and water salinity
- Decreased biodiversity
- Trace elements and metals toxicity (i.e., arsenic, lead, and boron)
Under the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates pollution from CAFOs by issuing National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits. While all 21,000+ CAFOs across the country are subject to at least some EPA regulations, only a fraction of them have NPDES permits. The sheer number of CAFOs and the level of constant monitoring and maintenance required to identify pollution discharges is cause for concern. But the lack of permits calls into question how much the EPA actually knows about the nation’s CAFOs and what they discharge into U.S. waters.
In addition, the EPA scaled back the stringency of their NPDES permitting regulations in the 2000s and 2010s by adding several loopholes where discharges could occur. A 2003 revision and subsequent court decision ruled that NPDES permits do not cover stormwater runoff from CAFOs or from CAFO manure applied to the land as fertilizer. While CAFOs are required to limit land application based on nutrient management standards, soil compaction and deteriorating soil ecosystems have compromised the ability of microorganisms and plants to take up nutrients, causing them to run into waterways instead.
Second, a 2012 revision relaxed permitting requirements such that only CAFOs that actively discharge pollution must obtain a permit, and not those that “might” pollute. Therefore, any CAFOs that could release pollution based on their proximity to U.S. waters, discharge history, type and quality of storage system, exposure of manure to rain, etc. are exempt from permitting requirements. Furthermore, the onus of determining whether a CAFO will pollute falls on the operator, not on the EPA. Thus, the EPA calls on CAFO owners, not scientists or policy experts, to do their own objective assessment of the site based on climatic conditions, topography, hydrology, etc.
The proportion of CAFOs with NPDES permits has fallen by 10% since the 2012 revision, from 41% in 2011 to 31% in 2020. North Carolina, a top pork and poultry producing state, has 1,222 CAFOs according to the EPA, but only a mere 14 of them have NPDES permits. Upon further inspection, at least four of those permits are for trout farms, leaving less than ten of them regulating pig and poultry farms.
The risk of water contamination from CAFOs has grown even worse with climate change. While the EPA requires all CAFOs to have certain manure storage capacity based on their location and waste generation, increasing storm frequencies and intensities have already proven that the current requirements are not enough. This is especially the case in the Southeast, where record-breaking hurricanes have ravaged CAFOs and nearby communities. In 2018, Hurricane Florence compromised or risked 110 manure lagoons on pig farms, dumping millions of gallons of toxic waste into the Cape Fear River Basin. Over 5,000 pigs and 3.4 million chickens died in the storm.
Which, to the last point, brings us full circle: to protect water, we must protect animals, too. And to protect animals, we must protect water. Any CAFO poses an inherent risk for pollution to enter U.S. waters. Violation notices and retroactive permit issuances do not rectify damage that has already been done. To protect clean water, we must enact stricter regulations, monitoring protocols, and enforcement of CAFOs. In addition, we must transition to more humane and sustainable food production that prioritizes less and better meat, diversified protein, and regenerative agriculture.