Thursday, May 30, 2024

Mess around factory farms, water quality is only getting worse

Factory farm water pollution has made headlines in Minnesota for months. Unfortunately, things are moving in the wrong direction. The latest U.S. Department of Agriculture’s twice-a-decade census of agriculture, released in February, finds that Minnesota’s factory farms are raising more animals than ever before. Much of that manure ends up in the water, exacerbating the state’s clean water woes.

Our lawsuit offers a path out of this mess. Last year, we were among 13 groups to sue the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for decades of delinquency in regulating the factory farm industry’s unchecked water pollution.

The Clean Water Act, one of our nation’s bedrock environmental laws, explicitly directs the EPA to monitor and reduce factory farm water pollution. Unfortunately, as Minnesota’s worsening pollution demonstrates, the EPA has been asleep at the wheel. Thanks to our lawsuit, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals now has a chance to reverse the EPA’s course.

The situation in Minnesota is dire. Today, the state is home to 42 million factory-farmed animals, confined in windowless barns and crammed feedlots. The vast majority are concentrated in southern Minnesota, the epicenter of the state’s hog industry, which churns out more hogs every year on fewer and fewer farms. Per a Food & Water Watch analysis, Minnesota’s hog operations alone produce 28 billion pounds of waste every year; that’s as much as nearly 21 million people (over three times the state population). That waste, laced with contaminants including nitrates, phosphorus, heavy metals, antibiotics, pesticides and bacteria like E. coli, is injected into local fields as fertilizer, where much of it ends up in the water.

Large factory farms, growing bigger by the day, are the worst polluters; our lawsuit targets improved regulation at these facilities.

Tragically, as Minnesota factory farms produce more waste, the number of operations actually regulated for their water pollution is plummeting. Minnesota also used to require permits for all factory farms; now it doesn’t. The EPA’s lax rules have allowed this deregulation to proceed, leaving hundreds of operations unregulated today.

As rural Minnesotans know all too well, this pollution endangers public health. Animal manure is a major source of nitrates in drinking water, which have been linked to everything from birth defects to cancers. Reporting on Dodge County’s “Cancer Road” found worsening nitrate contamination in the wells of friends and families suffering from cancer. Some tested wells had as much as double the state and federal safety limit for nitrates.

These neighbors are not alone. An analysis of EPA and Minnesota Department of Health data indicates as many as half a million Minnesotans are drinking nitrate-contaminated drinking water tied to the agriculture industry. In response to a petition for federal intervention, the EPA directed eight Minnesota counties last year to take action to protect private well users from dangerous nitrate levels. This has yet to happen. As nitrates and the number of cancer victims climb, so does the suffering. Communities who speak out against this industry pay an enormous price for their activism, facing harassment and intimidation, and ultimately, inaction.

The health risks of factory farm pollution extend beyond nitrates. When tested in 2017, 70% of Cedar River water samples had E. coli contamination in excess of human health standards. The bacteria is linked to severe stomach issues and kidney failure.

Minnesota’s factory farm pollution harms the environment too. Chemicals found in animal waste lower water oxygen levels, suffocating animals and plants, and encouraging algal blooms that take over native ecosystems and render water recreation unsafe. Livestock concentration is correlated with waterway impairments, with southern Minnesota communities bearing the brunt of the burden.

But the contamination doesn’t stop at state borders. Midwest factory farm pollution contributes to a growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico nearly the size of Yellowstone National Park.

The EPA’s failure to regulate factory farm pollution is exacerbating a clean water crisis in Minnesota. Our lawsuit presents the long overdue opportunity to force the agency’s hand. As the industry’s pollution mounts, the EPA must act once and for all to bring the largest, most polluting factory farms under Clean Water Act regulation? public health and clean water hang in the balance.

Sonja Trom Eayrs is a co-founder of Dodge County Concerned Citizens and grew up on the family farm in Westfield Township. Emily Miller is a Colorado-based staff attorney with the national advocacy organization Food & Water Watch.


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