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SEE NO EVIL: Factory farms getting bigger, but government ‘regulators’ don’t know where they all are

National Pork Association: We don’t want a big database of where all these farms are, because you’re going to give a roadmap to animal activists. The USDA and the FBI are behind us.

GEORGINA GUSTIN: Thousands of industrial farms across the country release contaminants into the nation’s water and airways, but in many states like North Carolina, the public has limited access to information about them. Federal authorities can’t gauge the scope of the pollution, either, because in some states they have very little idea of the number and location of farms. This makes regulatory oversight weak and in some cases, nonexistent.

“You can get this information on coal plants or any other polluter,” said Tarah Heinzen, an attorney with Food & Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group that has called for the agency to submit information about CAFOs to the public. “But you can’t for this industry.”

These massive farms, or CAFOs—Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations—can house hundreds of thousands of animals in confined spaces, creating potent volumes of nutrient pollution that have fouled rivers, lakes and oceans. Decomposing manure releases toxic chemicals, mostly ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, into the air. Manure stored in lagoons releases methane and nitrous oxide, global warming gases more powerful than carbon dioxide.

The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that about 11 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. come from agriculture, and about 12 percent of total methane emissions comes from manure management, a rise of about 65 percent since 1990…

The EPA, which regulates CAFOs under the Clean Water Act, puts the number of CAFOs at about 19,200, up from about 3,600 three decades ago. But environmental groups say that number is probably higher, largely because the agency has been unable to get reliable and comprehensive information, thanks to patchy state regulation and years of legal pushback from the livestock industry to keep the information from the public.

“The EPA doesn’t really know where the CAFOs are,” Heinzen said. “That’s a huge problem. And this is 40 years after the Clean Water Act, and this industry has exploded”… In North Carolina, state regulators exempt poultry CAFOs from public records disclosure, but earlier this year, environmental groups revealed there are about 3,900…

“We don’t want them to have a big database of where all these farms are,” said Michael Formica, an attorney for the National Pork Producers Association. “There’s on-farm security, national security, implications. So we stopped the rule. The USDA, the FBI were behind us. They said: You can’t do this rule. You can’t create this database, because you’re going to give a roadmap to terrorists, to animal activists”.

Instead, EPA made an arrangement with states to collect the information, because those details — like location and number of animals — are needed to determine which operators need permits and which CAFOs were violating the law. The agency has estimated that as many as 75 percent of CAFOs needed permits because they discharge as a result of their standard operational profile, but that only 40 percent actually have them.

Environmental groups, skeptical that the EPA was collecting information from the states, filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act to see if the EPA was holding up its end of the agreement… The environmental community now finds itself in a familiar position.

“The court found there was a privacy interest. What about the public interest?” Heinzen said. “The public interest is that this information sheds light on the agency. We need to know what it’s doing. We need to watchdog EPA’s efforts, and the court didn’t buy that.” … The livestock groups say they’ll continue to press for privacy. SOURCE…

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