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Thursday, Nov. 19, 2009 04:11 pm

IEPA fails to regulate factory farms, environmental group says

Group petitions to strip agency of clean water authority

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Dead fish float on a contaminated pond outside Murrayville, Ill. after a neighboring pig farm allowed thousands of gallons of animal waste to seep into the local watershed early this summer.
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ILLINOIS ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency fails to properly regulate livestock farms, according a group petitioning to revoke the agency’s enforcement authority.

Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water, a statewide group concerned with the impact of large industrialized farms, says the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is ignoring its duty to oversee confined animal feeding operations – farms where large numbers of livestock are raised for slaughter. CAFOs produce large amounts of animal waste which is usually collected in pits or lagoons and can cause major environmental damage if released into waterways. A recent example occurred early this summer when a pig farm in Murrayville, 11 miles south of Jacksonville, allowed 31,000 gallons of animal waste to seep into a nearby creek, killing fish in a neighbor’s pond and prompting an injunction from the Illinois attorney general’s office.

“They have a complaint-based permit system,” says Danielle Diamond, an attorney and ICCAW member. “Basically, once a facility does damage to the environment – almost always irreversible – and someone complains, then (IEPA) might go in and do some type of enforcement.”

The federal Clean Water Act requires permits for anyone discharging pollutants such as animal waste. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grants states the authority to oversee the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, a program under the federal law that seeks to regulate CAFO permits.

But Bruce Yurdin, manager of IEPA’s watershed management section, says the federal guidelines define livestock farms as CAFOs only if they discharge or propose to discharge waste. Consequently, a livestock farm only needs a permit if it plans to dump waste, and it is up to each livestock farm to determine whether they should file for a permit.

In March of 2008, ICCAW filed a formal complaint with the USEPA, claiming that the state agency “is failing to require NPDES permits of CAFOs that discharge into waters of the state.” The environmental group petitioned the federal government to strip IEPA of its authority to enforce the permit program, saying the USEPA should reassume that duty within Illinois. The federal agency is investigating ICCAW’s claims and is expected to make a decision soon, Diamond says.

Meanwhile, Diamond says a 2005 court case that raised questions about which CAFOs were required to obtain permits has left IEPA with no motivation to enforce the law.

“They’ve been sitting on their hands, saying, ‘We don’t know who we’re supposed to issue NPDES permits, so we’re not going to issue any,’ ” Diamond says, adding that ICCAW offered to help the state catalog CAFOs that had discharged waste in the past without a permit.

“The last time we met with them, they basically said they weren’t going to issue any permits. They pooh-poohed our ideas for creating an inventory (of CAFOs).”

Yurdin says he doesn’t recall such an offer.

“I’m not sure they’d be the appropriate parties to do that,” he says. “There’s a way of filing complaints on individual cases, and if they wanted to do that, we’d certainly take that information. In terms of putting together an inventory or doing some sort of survey, we’re taking steps in that direction, but it is a very difficult and time-consuming process. We’re looking into it right now.”

ICCAW contends that IEPA only has records on 30 percent of the 500 largest CAFOs in the state. In 2001, there were an estimated 35,000 livestock facilities operating in Illinois, and ICCAW contends the state has no idea how many of those should be subject to permit requirements. Diamond says that IEPA allows CAFO operators a chance to address the problems caused by their discharges, letting them avoid the permitting process altogether, though Yurdin says that has been changing.

“I think it depends on the nature and extent, the magnitude of that discharge,” he says. “We have in recent years required permits as a result of an enforcement action, but it depends on the specifics of that case.”

Maralee Johnson, executive vice president of the Illinois Beef Association, says the IEPA permit program works well already.

“They do enforce discharges and pollution,” Johnson says. “We do have standards we have to apply and follow. I think what we have here is a system that does work.”

She says livestock farms are concerned with environmental protection as well. “We also do not want to pollute or damage our waters because they’re a resource,” Johnson says. “If you look at it logically, why would we want to destroy an integral part of our business?”

Despite ICCAW’s petition, Diamond says the probability of the state losing its enforcement authority is low, citing similar efforts in other states, such as Michigan, where the USEPA compelled that state to step up enforcement efforts.

Yurdin says IEPA is still adapting to revised federal rules on CAFO permits released last year, but things are headed in the right direction.

We’re picking up steam on the issue,” he says. “This will be a very intensive effort.”

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