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Court Orders EPA to Close Loophole, Factory Farms Required to Report Toxic Pollution

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Photo credit: Environmental Law & Policy Center of the Midwest

The DC Circuit Court ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Tuesday to close a loophole that has allowed hazardous substances released into the environment by concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to go unreported.


"We applaud the DC Circuit Court's clear decision to enforce this vital environmental safeguard to protect public safety," said Earthjustice attorney Jonathan Smith, who helped argue the case before the court.

"In the words of the court, the risk of air emissions from CAFOs 'isn't just theoretical; people have become seriously ill and even died' from these emissions. But the public cannot protect itself from these hazardous substances if CAFOs aren't required to report their releases to the public. The loophole also prevented reporting of these toxics to local and state responders and the court held that plainly violated the law."

CAFOs are large-scale livestock facilities that confine large numbers of animals in relatively small spaces. A large CAFO may contain upward of 1,000 cattle, 2,500 hogs or 125,000 chickens. Such facilities generate a massive amount of urine and feces, which is commonly liquefied and either stored under the facility or nearby in open-air lagoons. This waste is known to release high levels of toxic pollutants like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide into the environment.

The court's decision closes a loophole that exempted CAFOs from the same pollutant reporting required of other industries to ensure public safety. Prior to the promulgation of this loophole at the end of the Bush administration in 2008, federal law long required CAFOs, like all other industrial facilities, to notify government officials when toxic pollution levels exceeded public safety thresholds.

"Corporate agricultural operations have always been well-equipped to report on hazardous substances," said Abel Russ of the Environmental Integrity Project. "Now they will once again be required to do so."

This ruling is the latest turn in Earthjustice's advocacy on behalf of environmental and animal advocacy groups including Waterkeeper Alliance, Humane Society of the United States, Sierra Club, Center for Food Safety and Environmental Integrity Project.

"People have a right to know if CAFOs are releasing hazardous substances that can pose serious risks of illness or death into the air near their homes, schools, businesses and communities," said Kelly Foster, senior attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance.

"This ruling ensures that the public will be able to obtain this information in the future and will hopefully spur EPA to start responding when hazardous substances reach toxic levels."

Nearly three-quarters of the nation's ammonia air pollution come from CAFOs. Once emitted into the air, this ammonia then redeposits on land or water, adding to nitrogen pollution and water quality impairments in places like the Chesapeake Bay.

"CAFO waste pollutes our air and waterways and creates dangerous food pathogens. This decision forces these operations to be transparent about their environmental impact," said Paige Tomaselli of the Center for Food Safety.

CAFOs can be terrible air polluters. People who live near them often suffer from constant exposure to foul odors and the toxic effects of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. Low levels of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide can irritate the eyes, nose and throat and high levels can be fatal.

"This safeguard isn't just about protecting the environment; it's about making entire communities safe for the people who live in them," said Sierra Club staff attorney Katie Schaefer.

Unsurprisingly, CAFO pollution also severely impacts the animals raised at the CAFO.

"Animal factories force billions of animals to suffer dangerously high levels of toxic air pollution day after day for their entire lives," said Humane Society of The United States' Chief Counsel Jonathan Lovvorn. "This ruling helps shine a light on the horrors of factory farms and the hidden costs to animals, people and the environment."

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Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.

Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.

SHARE Foundation / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0​

"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.

In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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