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Factory Farms Produce 100 Times More Waste Than All People In the US Combined and It's Killing Our Drinking Water

"Factory farms are dangerous to the environment; they are ticking time bombs of manure just waiting to be spilled into public waters."

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After some legal wrangling, both by industrial farming interests and by environmental groups, the rules were changed again in 2008. The 2008 rule only requires CAFOs to apply for a permit if they are "designed, constructed, operated, and maintained in a manner such that the CAFO will discharge." Unless a CAFO can prove it does not meet that criteria (and thus does not need a permit), a discharge of manure would result in penalties both for the discharge itself and for failure to have a permit.

The recent court decision ruled that the EPA has no right to require CAFOs to apply for permits unless they actually discharge waste. Once a CAFO discharges waste, however, the court decided that the EPA can then require it to apply for a permit.

The industrial farming groups -- the National Pork Producers Council, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the Oklahoma Pork Council, United Egg Producers, the North Carolina Pork Council, the National Chicken Council, the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, Dairy Business Association Inc., and the National Milk Producers Federation -- also challenged the EPA's right to force CAFOs to design and implement Nutrient Management Plans and to penalize them if the plans are not followed and waste is discharged into waterways. On this issue, the court sided with the EPA.

What is the impact of this decision? Could it perhaps have no impact at all, as the CAFOs exempted from applying for permits are those that are not polluting? Sadly, this is likely not the case. By forcing CAFOs to apply for a permit, the EPA was forcing them to create a plan to manage the large amounts of waste their animals would inevitably generate. Without planning ahead for responsibly disposing of manure, how many CAFOs will wait until the last minute, like Inskeep, and then dump millions of gallons of manure into the environment? Even though the EPA will still be able to penalize them once they do, the damage to the environment will already be done.

These are not hypothetical scenarios. Just ask Rick Dove, an ex-Marine who serves as a Riverkeeper on his beloved Neuse River in North Carolina. After retiring from the Marines, he lived his dream of becoming a small-scale commercial fisherman on the river briefly -- until enormous hog operations moved in, each producing as much waste as a town of 20,000 people, and their waste killed the fish.

Dove has seen hog farmers oversaturating their "sprayfields" -- cropland intended to absorb the unfathomable amount of manure generated by the hogs -- resulting in contamination of local waterways, but he has also seen the farmers illegally dumping the manure directly into the rivers. And then he's seen the Neuse turn red, green, yellow, orange, and black with various types of algae blooms that precede fish kills that kill millions or even a billion fish at a time.

In addition to irresponsible spraying or dumping of manure, there are the many lagoon spills that occur. In these cases, farmers likely have no intention of dumping manure into the environment, but it happens all the same. Kirby says that when writing his book, "there were so many lagoon spills that my editor had me take some out." And because such spills are accidents, farmers won't necessarily apply for permits ahead of time, since they don't intend to discharge manure.

The losers in this story are not just "tree-hugging" environmentalists or even fishermen. In far too many cases, the losers are drinkers of water -- which is all of us.

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. .

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