US feedlots face tighter legislation

Following a series of highly publicised pollution incidents, managers of intensively farmed livestock on confined feedlots in the US are facing a tightening of legislation. The new rules from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) include applying for annual permits, writing annual reports and developing plans for dealing with manure and wastewater.

Improper management of manure from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) is contributing to the US’s water quality problems in which 40% of waters are impaired. For example, in November last year, a pig farming company that owns 21 feedlots in Missouri faced US$50 million in costs for developing and installing wastewater treatment facilities (see related story). The company was also fined US$350,000 for air and water pollution.

A report last year also revealed that runoff from farms – as well as cities – has increased over the last 30 years, and threatens to turn much of the US’s coastlines into ‘dead zones’ (see related story).

The new rules will apply to large CAFOs – facilities having more than 1,000 cattle, 700 dairy cows, 2,500 pigs, 10,000 sheep, 125,000 chickens, 82,000 laying hens and 55,000 turkeys – accounting for around 15,500 livestock facilities across the US. Such large facilities increased by 51% between 1982 and 1997, and now produce 300 million tonnes of manure every year. Some of the largest have the capacity for over a million animals.

New powers granted under the legislation include controls on the spreading of manure and wastewater on land, and more public access to information through annual CAFO reports. There is also an end to current exemptions for permits, such as when CAFOs only discharge during large storms and for operations that raise chickens with dry manure handling systems, immature pigs and immature dairy cows.

Currently, only 4,500 facilities are covered by permits. This would increase by 11,000 facilities by 2006 under the new legislation, says the EPA.

The EPA has designed the new rules with the intention of cutting the amount of phosphorus released into the environment by 56 million pounds (25,400 tonnes) and cutting nitrogen by more than 100 million pounds (45,360 tonnes).

However, critics argue that the new rules are weaker than those proposed under the Clinton Administration, reports the Washington Post. Less than half the number of companies that would have been covered under Clinton’s rules will have to regulate their disposal of animal wastes, and livestock producers are being given substantial authority to draft their own anti-pollution management plans.

Critics also complain that industry isn’t required to use modern technology to combat pollution because it doesn’t require the monitoring of ground water.

“Unfortunately, the EPA ducked its responsibility to hold large agribusiness firms responsible for environmental damage from manure,” said Senator for Iowa Tom Harkin.

EPA Administrator Christie Whitman welcomed the new rule. “It will help reduce what has been a growing problem – the fact that animal waste generated by concentrated animal feeding operations poses an increasing threat to the health of America’s waters.”

The regulations will be effective 60 days from their date of publication on the Federal Register.

Individual states are being given flexibility to implement the rules as appropriate for their geographical region. They will be able to develop permits that take into account the size, location and environmental risks of each facility, says the EPA.

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