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Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011 03:32 pm

Illinois EPA steps up feedlot pollution regulation

Complaints to feds prompt changes in farm oversight

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The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is stepping up regulation of feedlots following complaints from environmental groups to the federal government.

Bruce Yurdin, manager of field operations for IEPA’s Division of Water Pollution Control, said the agency has taken several steps over the past year to better track pollution from confined animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs. The farms produce high volumes of livestock in a small area, though some environmental groups say the practice can produce dangerous pollution because of the concentration of manure and chemicals.

Yurdin said IEPA built an electronic database of CAFOs in Illinois, created a computerized system for tracking citizen complaints, and hired six new employees for inspection and permitting. IEPA also submitted a proposal to the Illinois Pollution Control Board for an administrative rule change that Yurdin said would require more large farms to obtain permits for discharging waste.

Yurdin said the agency also met with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, representatives of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and others to devise new strategies for enforcement. Yurdin said that effort prompted IEPA to start assessing fines against CAFOs which didn’t correct violations in a timely manner.

The changes were prompted by a petition sent to the U.S. EPA from two environmental groups – Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water and the Environmental Integrity Project. The petition asked the U.S. EPA to revoke IEPA’s authority to enforce the federal Clean Water Act because the groups felt IEPA failed to adequately address  pollution from CAFOs.

IEPA and the U.S. EPA created a plan to revamp Illinois’ regulatory system, which includes many of the changes already implemented.

But Yurdin said two changes at the federal level have complicated IEPA’s rollout of further changes. U.S. EPA has proposed two alternatives for collecting basic information from CAFOs nationwide, and Yurdin said IEPA is waiting to see how the federal rule change turns out because one alternative involves the U.S. EPA collecting information through each state’s environmental protection agency.

Yurdin said a recent federal court case involving the National Pork Producers Association struck down one requirement for CAFO permits nationwide. Previously, facilities that discharged or had potential to discharge pollutants needed a permit. Under the recent case, Yurdin said, only facilities with an actual discharge require a permit. That decision came out shortly after IEPA and U.S. EPA created the plan for Illinois’ regulatory changes, Yurdin said.

“The emphasis shifts from issuing permits to those who discharge or have potential to discharge, and that potential is kind of a gray area,” Yurdin said. “There’s some interpretation there, but that all went away. Now the focus is shifted to making determinations about who makes an actual discharge, and that becomes an inspection issue. How many inspections do you do, and what do you look for when you get there?”

CAFO rules have changed often since the mid-1990s, Yurdin said, partly because federal regulations lagged behind the livestock industry.

“We’ve run through the process of the U.S. EPA having to revise rules that were originally drafted in the mid-1970s for a livestock industry that changed dramatically over 20 to 25 years,” Yurdin said. “In the intervening period, the states, lacking the framework that U.S. EPA had been providing, stepped in to say, ‘We’re going to do this on our own.’ ”

Tarah Heinzen, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, said IEPA’s progress is encouraging, but she questioned whether the proposed federal rule change should hold up further developments in Illinois.

“I see that as passing the buck,” Heinzen said. “Really, what U.S. EPA is asking is to gather extremely basic information. Quite frankly, they should have had this information for decades, but because they haven’t maintained a good inventory of CAFOs over the years, much like the Illinois EPA, they’re now in the position of trying to put this together.”

Maralee Johnson, executive vice president of the Illinois Beef Association, said her organization is working with IEPA to determine “best management practices” so that CAFO operators won’t be caught off-guard by IEPA’s changes.

“We’re basically saying to farmers, ‘Take a look at your operation. If you have problems such as this, these are potential solutions,’ ” Johnson said. “We’re concerned about the environment, too. It makes good sense for us to be proactive.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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