It was already good news for our state’s water when the Legislature killed a proposal that would have exempted many of our largest factory farms from getting NPDES permits. But when the EPA announced this week that it was significantly changing its regulatory relationship with factory farms, it became clear not passing House File 2659 was good common sense as well, maybe even a little prescient.
On Tuesday, the EPA reached a settlement with three environmental groups that requires the federal agency to gather information about confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and determine if they should have Clean Water Act NPDES (National Pollution Discharge Elimination System) permits. That’s an about-face from a 2008 rule change that basically allowed factory farm owners to decide themselves whether these permits were needed. By the way, isn’t that a little like the DNR asking you if you catch enough walleye to justify a fishing license?
Under the 2008 rule change, CAFOs were not required to get an NPDES permit if they certify that they will not discharge to public waters. However, at the time Minnesota declined to give in to factory farming’s demands and during the past few years has still required large CAFOs to get NPDES permits.
That’s something we should be proud of here in the land of 10,000 lakes. This state’s rejection of CAFO self-policing has helped protect our water despite the lowering of federal standards. In fact, if the environmental catastrophe known as Excel Dairy had not been required to carry an NPDES permit, it may have been even harder for the state to shut it down after it became a major public health threat. How do you enforce the requirements of a permit someone doesn’t have?
The EPA defines a CAFO as an operation with any of the following: 700 dairy cows; 1,000 beef cattle; 2,500 swine weighing more than 55 pounds or 10,000 swine weighing less that 55 pounds; 55,000 turkeys; and between 30,000 and 125,000 chickens, depending on the manure handling system involved.
There are more than 30,000 registered feedlots in Minnesota, with about 1,200 of them fitting the CAFO designation. In other words, the largest livestock operations make up less than 4 percent of all feedlots in the state. But because of the extremely large amounts of manure they concentrate in one place, these mega-operations pose an inordinately large air and water pollution risk.
The EPA switched the way it applies NPDES permits to factory farms as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Waterkeeper Alliance in 2009. In the settlement reached with the groups Tuesday, the EPA will track down CAFOs operating without permits and decide for itself if they require water pollution regulation. The information that the agency will require from individual facilities will be determined after a public comment period.
What if Rep. Al Juhnke’s House File 2659 had passed? Well, it would have been a royal waste of resources, not to mention possibly creating some sticky legal problems for the state as well. So it appears Minnesotans can pat themselves on the collective back for having some foresight and not following the federal government’s example in 2008 by weakening the state’s NPDES permit requirements. Self-policing was a bad idea then, and Tuesday’s decision reinforces that yes indeed, it is still a bad idea.