Weakening Factory Farm Rules in the Midnight Hour

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What’s a sure sign that legislators are not carrying out the wishes of the general public? Answer: when their actions have to be carried out in secret, behind closed doors, in the dark of night. That’s literally what happened Tuesday night-Wednesday morning when the Minnesota Legislature passed the Environment Finance Bill. As part of the budget negotiations to end the government shutdown, Republican leaders insisted that language be included in the finance bill which weakens environmental standards for factory farms. The Land Stewardship Project and our allies have opposed this proposal in the past and it failed to pass the normal legislative committee process this year and last year due to strong public opposition. So why not sneak it through when the public is locked out of the process?

As we all know, budget negotiations to end the government shutdown were  done behind closed doors. In fact, the entire Capitol was closed to the public during the process. We were not able to see the budget bills until they were presented publicly as the final product. The final budget agreement that included this language was spin-doctored as a compromise, but that’s like calling a beating a fight. This was one-sided—corporate special interests didn’t compromise and, with policy changes like this, they actually came out ahead. It was our air, water and family farmers that were compromised.

Public policy created behind closed doors is contrary to democratic values and almost always ends up favoring corporate special interests over the public good. And indeed, that’s exactly what happened here.

Here’s some background on this law: under changes made during the last Bush administration, feedlots over 1,000 animal units are not required to get a Clean Water Act National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit if they certify that they will not discharge to public waters. However, under Minnesota law operations of this size were still required to get a Clean Water Act NPDES permit—something we should have been proud of here in the land of 10,000 lakes. During the past few years, this state provision has helped protect our water despite the lowering of federal standards.

But all that’s changed as of this week. The new law forces Minnesota to follow the weaker federal standard for feedlots over 1,000 animal units. So now the state’s largest factory farms will not be required to get a Clean Water Act NPDES permit if the feedlot operator claims that they do not intend to discharge into waters of the state.

There are more than 30,000 registered feedlots in Minnesota, with about 1,100 of them larger than 1,000 animal units, according to the MPCA ( 1,000 animal units = 2,500 sows; 10,000 swine under 55 pounds; 1,000 head of cattle; or 700 dairy cows).

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 liquid manure they concentrate in one place, these operations pose inordinately large air and water pollution risks. It’s well documented that the nation’s biggest manure-related fish kills have been caused by the  largest livestock operations, which, by their very nature, far too often treat manure as a waste product, rather than as a valuable fertilizer. Here in Minnesota, the record for number of fish killed by a single manure spill is held by a large hog operation in Renville County.

And problems with factory farms aren’t ancient history. As we described in this blog last year, the gigantic Excel Dairy in northwest Minnesota is a prime example of how failure to bird-dog a factory farm can create a public health risk long into the future. And in fact it was only by pulling Excel’s Clean Water Act NPDES permit that state officials were able to finally begin addressing the problem.

This week’s special session should have been exclusively about ending the government shutdown and addressing the revenue crisis. It should not have been used to push policy for corporate special interests. That the Environment Finance Bill benefits a handful of corporate special interests is bad enough. Even worse, it has the potential to do great harm to thousands of rural residents throughout the state. And those folks most effected had no say in the matter this week.

Here’s the kicker: this weakening of our state law will not save money. In fact, the Legislature budgeted $700,000 for the next two years to cover the costs of “implementing general operating permits for feedlots over 1,000 animal units.” In the case of most industry, the firm applying for the pollution permit covers, through fees, most of the cost of administering that permit. But in Minnesota, factory farming is different — its permitting system is heavily subsidized by our tax money. For example, before this bill was passed the fee for a large feedlot to apply for an NPDES permit was in the hundreds of dollars—a drop in the bucket for a 700-cow dairy of a 10,000 pig swine operation. Why aren’t these agribusinesses required to pay real money to get a pollution permit?

Putting corporate interests ahead of the public good isn’t limited to Saint Paul. And eliminating input from the people affected by legislation doesn’t always have to be done in the middle of the night—it takes all forms and venues. For example, this summer lawmakers in D.C. have working to slash funding for programs that benefit family farmers—the Conservation Stewardship Program, for example. They are doing this outside of what is supposed to be the key public input-driven vehicle for determining how much funding agriculture receives: the Farm Bill.

And guess what programs are not being cut in these times of “we all must share the pain”? Federal commodity crop programs that benefit large-scale corporate agriculture are somehow getting off relatively unscathed. Again, the excuse being used for cutting budgets outside the regular legislative process is that it’s a crisis situation and that we all have to sacrifice. It’s a crisis alright, a crisis for democratic decision making — and corporate interests are not sharing in the sacrifice.




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