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Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010 02:10 am

IEPA vows to step up factory farm enforcement

More inspections, faster responses to manure complaints

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The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency vows to step up enforcement of anti-pollution rules on factory farms after criticism from the federal government and environmental advocates.

In a letter dated Nov. 1, IEPA responded to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and several Illinois-based environmental groups that claimed IEPA was not effectively regulating confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) under the federal Clean Water Act. The U.S. EPA in September censured IEPA for delayed permits, lack of enforcement against rule breakers and other issues [see “Feds censure IEPA on farm waste,” Oct. 14, at illinoistimes.com.] IEPA responded this month by saying it would address those issues and create a database of CAFOs to help with future enforcement.

llinois CAFOs are currently covered by a general permit issued by IEPA, but a coalition of environmental groups across the state petitioned the U.S. EPA in March 2008 to revoke IEPA’s authority to enforce the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, which regulates the release of pollutants into the environment. The environmental groups claimed IEPA was allowing dangerous manure spills from CAFOs by not explicitly granting or denying discharge permits on a case-by-case basis. [See “IEPA fails to regulate factory farms, environmental group says”, Nov. 19, 2009 at illinoistimes.com.]

IEPA’s response says many of the issues raised by the environmental groups have already begun to be addressed, including a backlog of inspections and undecided permit applications. Many of the applications were for CAFOs that either no longer existed or were never built, IEPA contends, though the agency plans to reinvestigate those CAFOs to allay concerns among environmental groups.

There are an estimated 500 large CAFOs in Illinois, U.S. EPA says, but only a fraction have applied for permits. A backlog of 40 incomplete applications is currently under review IEPA says, adding that several applicants have been cited for failure to provide necessary information.

Only five IEPA staff members work on CAFO permitting, the agency says, but those staff also have other duties, which led to delayed inspections of CAFOs. To remedy that problem, IEPA will seek approval to hire three new employees for that task.

IEPA also plans to propose several legislative items to the Illinois General Assembly, which would allow the agency to require all CAFOs to apply for permits, require livestock producers to file basic information with IEPA, and would strengthen current penalties against farms that do not comply, among other changes.

U.S. EPA had cited IEPA for inconsistent standards and procedures during inspections, which IEPA says it will address, but the state says U.S. EPA misunderstood the purpose of some of its inspections. Some inspections were meant to address citizen complaints and were not meant to be full inspections, IEPA says.

“The Agency believes the underlying problems associated with CAFO inspections – lack of resources and an adequate, centralized inventory – have little to do with the lack of standard operating procedures for inspections and report drafting,” IEPA says. “The Agency’s CAFO inspections are rigorous and complete.”

IEPA has contracted with Western Illinois University to test a statewide inventory of CAFOs to aid enforcement. The pilot inventory will go online by May 2011, and the full inventory will be operational 12 to 18 months later, IEPA says.

“If the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency does everything they say they will, their regulatory program will be improved,” says Dr. Stacy James, water resources scientist for Prairie Rivers Network, an Illinois group concerned with river conservation. “But improved policies must be accompanied by aggressive state action and a stronger ethic to do everything possible to protect people and wildlife from pollution.”

To read IEPA’s full response, visit tinyurl.com/2ccvjkd.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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