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Environmental Law Exemptions in Factory Farming

September 30, 2021

Existing laws protecting the environment often include exemptions for factory farms.

As global environmental issues become forefront in the minds and lives of many, factory farming in America is responsible for much of the destruction, but does not have to follow the limitations as many industries do. Laws that we think protect the environment do not aid in protecting us from factory farming.

As human population and activity increases, the degree of environmental destruction and adverse effects also increase, leaving many wondering what laws there are to protect people and nature against these effects and what the exact sources of this degradation are. One of the major contributors, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, accounts for a wide variety of environmental pollution, ranging from groundwater pollution to massive amounts of feces and urine to toxic gases. Despite this broad range of effects people see from CAFOs, the laws in place to protect our environment are failing to protect us and nature from their harm. 

A commonly known environmental protection law, the Clean Water Act, is one of these. Section 404 of the CWA details that discharges of dredged or fill materials in our nation’s wetlands and waterways do not usually require permits if the discharge takes place on a “normal” or ongoing farming operation. As long as there is no wetland land change (either to or from a wetland), then farming operations do not need a permit for discharging these materials, which exempts CAFOs from following this guideline in the CWA. And since Section 404 allows permits, materials that are regulated by this law are not always prohibited entirely, and a permit can be issued to allow these non-exempt discharges into waterways. 

Another part of the CWA regards what CAFOs do about the massive amounts of manure they accrue. The act dictates that CAFOs need to file nutrient management plans that detail waste accumulation information, but the actual enforcement of these policies is difficult despite the penalties for breaking them. They are often not enforced, and even when they are, it is difficult to prosecute. Clearly, this could lead to massive amounts of fecal and urine pollution. 

In March 2018, Congress passed the Fair Agricultural Reporting Method Act which provides farms the exemption from reporting their air emissions under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. Before the FARM Act, CAFOs were large enough operations that they usually fit criteria requiring them to report information regarding spills, leaks, discharge, and other forms of contamination under CERCLA and EPCRA, but the administration passed yet another exemption for farming operations against the environment. The types of air emissions that the government now exempts factory farming from include ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, which can have significant effects on human health and environmental quality as well as posing threats to the overall climate situation. 

The depth of environmental laws and their enforcement vary from state to state, and the laws the United States has set up to protect the environment are too numerous to condense into this single article. But the extent to which factory farming is exempt from the ones described here is enough to warrant a gander at the rest of the policies that Americans believe are protecting them and nature. Factory farming has too significant an impact on the environment to not consider these exemptions dangerous to people and nature alike. 

Sydney Walters is a summer intern with FFAC. She is working towards her degree in Environmental Science and minors in Wildlife and Genetics at North Carolina State University.