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EPA Sued for Abandoning Critical Factory Farm Rule Under Clean Water Act

EPA Sued for Abandoning Critical Factory Farm Rule Under Clean Water Act

Food & Water Watch

A coalition of community, animal welfare and environmental organizations is filing a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) challenging the agency’s withdrawal of a proposed rule that would have allowed the EPA to collect basic information, like locations and animal population sizes, from factory farms. 

The Center for Food Safety, Environmental Integrity Project, Food & Water Watch, The Humane Society of the United States and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, arguing that the agency’s withdrawal of the proposed rule lacks the rational basis required by law. The information at issue is critical to the EPA’s ability to protect waterways from pollutants produced by factory farms, one of the country’s largest sources of water pollution.

Photo credit: Food & Water Watch Issue Brief,
The EPA's Failure to Track Factory Farms

“While power plants, waste treatment facilities and manufacturers have had to comply with the protective standards of the Clean Water Act, the factory farming industry has managed to evade any meaningful regulation," said Hugh Espey, executive director at Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. "After over three decades, there is no rational reason for why EPA won’t enact the types of Clean Water Act approaches with factory farms that have worked well with all of our other polluting industries.”

“The animal agriculture industry has benefited from EPA’s lack of information for decades, and has successfully opposed efforts to increase transparency," explained Jonathan Lovvorn, senior vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation at The Humane Society. "This certainly is not good for animals, humans or the environment; it is only good for massive industrialized farms.”

Factory farms are industrial facilities that confine thousands of animals in limited land areas for meat, dairy and egg production. The operations that would have been subject to this rule are the factory farms falling within the “CAFO” point source category under the Clean Water Act, a category that consists of the nation’s largest and dirtiest operations.

“With the withdrawal, EPA continues to pursue a [concentrated animal feeding operations] CAFO pollution control policy that can only be described as willful ignorance," said George Kimbrell, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety."As long as EPA continues to turn an unlawfully blind eye towards this industry, our waterways and communities will never be safe.”

The EPA estimates there are 20,000 CAFOs in the U.S. producing three times as much waste as humans. Although this waste contains pathogens, heavy metals, antibiotics and hormones, EPA does not require all factory farms to meet waste management and treatment requirements.

The Columbia University School of Law Environmental Law Clinic is providing legal representation in the case.

In 1972, the clear water pollution threat posed by CAFOs’ staggering waste stream led Congress to mandate that EPA must regulate CAFOs pursuant to the Clean Water Act. Despite this 40-year-old mandate, EPA continues to lack basic data about factory farms, including accurate and consistent information on their size, location and waste management practices.

 

Under the abandoned rule, known as CWA Section 308 Rule, the agency was to begin gathering this basic information. The proposed CWA Section 308 Rule made a strong case for the need for information collection based on inadequate existing data. Following strong industry opposition, the EPA withdrew the rule. In its rule withdrawal, the EPA radically shifted its position without justification.

The agency now claims that instead of using its authority under the Clean Water Act to gather information directly from CAFO owners and operators, it will seek to gather existing information about CAFOs from various state and federal agencies. This approach contradicts recent government reports, which confirm that state agency CAFO data is “inconsistent and inaccurate and does not provide the EPA with the reliable data it needs…” and that “no federal agency collects accurate and consistent data on the number, size, and location of CAFOs.” This legal action asserts the EPA’s change in position is arbitrary because alternative courses of action cannot provide the crucial information.

In the fall of 2012, several environmental organizations filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the EPA for all of the state-generated data gathered by the agency. After industry browbeating, the agency attempted to recall some of the records that it originally produced. Nevertheless, Food & Water Watch retained and reviewed all of the original records.

“Our review of these records confirms what EPA has already admitted in its preamble to the 308 Rule," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director at Food & Water Watch. "The data from the states is inconsistent, incomplete and ultimately, will not allow the agency to finally begin the process of properly regulating these highly polluting facilities.”

Visit EcoWatch’s FACTORY FARMING and CLEAN WATER ACT pages for more related news on this topic.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

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With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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