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EPA Lets Factory Farms Decide If They Need Clean Water Permits

WASHINGTON, DC   - Factory farms could decide if they need a federal permit to discharge animal waste into lakes, rivers and streams under a proposal issued Thursday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency said the proposed rule "furthers the statutory goal of restoring and maintaining the nation's water quality," but critics contend it lets some of the nation's largest polluters off the hook. "The EPA has been completely cowed by the factory farm lobby," said Jon Devine, a senior attorney with NRDC. "Instead of doing its job to regulate polluters, it chickened out and decided to let polluters police themselves ­ if they want to."

The proposal targets the nation's 18,800 concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which have come to dominate the nation's production of beef, pork and poultry.

Some of the largest facilities have capacities that exceed one million animals and EPA estimates the nation's CAFOs produce some 500 million tons of animal waste annually.

CAFOs store waste in massive open-air lagoons or dispose of it on land - spills and runoff can contaminate drinking water supplies, kill fish and spread disease.

The agency's proposal is a revision to a 2003 rule that was challenged in court by environmentalists and blocked by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals federal court in 2005.

The court found the 2003 regulations violated the Clean Water Act and failed to ensure concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) would be held accountable for discharging animal wastes into the nation's waters.

The court described the regulations as "arbitrary and capricious" and said the Clean Water Act "demands regulation in fact, not only in principle."

The revised proposal allows CAFO operators to define what constitutes pollution discharge and to decide if they should apply for a Clean Water permit.

If the operators that land apply manure, litter or processed wastewater decide the discharge from their facilities is only "agricultural stormwater," they do not need to apply for a permit, according to the proposed rule.

Operators who do apply for permits would be required to submit a nutrient management plan that would be available for public comment.

CAFOs "would continue to be required to properly manage the manure they generate" under the proposal, according to the EPA.

NRDC attorney Melanie Shepherdson said the agency is "abdicating its responsibility to protect the public."

Shepherdson said factory farms are polluting waterways in at least 29 states and the EPA proposal will do little to change this. "We can't reduce and prevent pollution when the EPA is giving polluters a free pass," she said.

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