Farming Pollution at Center of EPA Lawsuit

dozens of pigs stand tightly in individual cages at a factory livestock farming operation


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently under a landslide of lawsuits regarding its failure to regulate factory farming pollution. Advocacy groups are holding them EPA accountable for neglecting its duty to enforce its own regulations for tens of thousands of large livestock agricultural farms.

The mass of waste produced in the livestock factory farming industry poses a serious threat to public waterways, and therefore to natural ecosystems and drinking water. The cost of mitigating this pollution most often becomes a burden of taxpayers, smaller business owners, water districts, and individual land and homeowners.

In 2017, dozens of environmental protection bodies filed a petition with the EPA. One of these is an advocacy and activist group called Food & Water Watch, whose representatives claim that six years later, “… the EPA has done nothing about it, while communities continue to suffer from the pollution of this largely unregulated industry.”

The petition pushed for the EPA to place stricter measures on livestock farms, in particular, concerning its enforcement of the Clean Water Act.

In 2022, environmental groups filed suit against the EPA, based on the federal rule that government agencies must respond to petitions within a reasonable time. The lawsuit claims that with the delay, the suffering of communities across the country is increasing in magnitudes as the pollution of factory farming is not being addressed.

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are large-scale livestock operations practiced by the majority of industrial farms. As the EPA tries to tackle water pollution, cracking down on “point sources” should be top of the agenda, preventing pollution from day one.

According to the Clean Water Act, CAFOs are one of these point sources, however nothing has been done to combat the agricultural discharge. 

The problem is complex. Whether they buy the land and employ farmers, or contract with livestock farmers to run these operations, their operations affect the livelihoods of farm families—and often entire rural communities. Yet the push for more profits, bigger livestock, and faster yields is a far cry from the “natural” lifestyle many people imagine when they think of farming.

Farmers have often been pushed into a financial spot where they have no choice but to go along with corporate demands, despite the waste and environmental hazards they produce. At the same time, the corporate propaganda machine is excellent at feeding farmers and rural communities a twisted narrative that minimizes the damage done by CAFOs.

Factory farms should be working in accordance with farming pollution discharge permits. But with weak regulations, only few operations are being mindful. Food & Water Watch have said that the EPA itself “estimates that there are nearly 10,000 large CAFOs nationwide illegally discharging without a clean water act permit.”

Anthony Schutz, associate professor at the University of Nebraska law school stated, “There’s a powerful agricultural lobby that doesn’t support regulation. It would rather see pollution abatement accomplished through voluntary actions.”

This lawsuit, if successful, will force the EPA’s hand to insist that states tighten pollution enforcement.

The lawsuit has included stories of some of the individuals affected by CAFOs water pollution. Food & Water Watch has offered them to the public, and they are just a few who represent the thousands affected by waterway pollution. 

Some of the factory farming pollution stories shared are as follows:

South Dakota resident David Gillespie lived downstream of a cattle farm. During heavy rainfall, industrial waste would flow downstream into the creek on his land. Unluckily, David slipped and fell into the creek for just a moment. A few weeks later was diagnosed with a severe blood infection. He had a miniscule, open blister on his foot when he fell, and it turned into a serious ulcer within a short while. 

Four years on, after surviving the near fatal wound, his ability to walk is still affected.

Nancy Utesch lived in a rural area encircled by 16 dairy CAFOs. She was part of a community that depended on well water. Waste from the industrial dairy farming had infected their groundwater and caused many to grow ill, nearly killing an infant.

Julie Duhn of Eldora, Iowa is even afraid to bring her grandchildren swimming. Duhn says in the lawsuit, concerning the urgent need for the EPA to take action, “Water is essential to life and when you can’t feel comfortable drinking it, let alone swimming in it, that seems pretty urgent to me.”

“Our members have to live with the consequences of confining thousands of animals in one place and factory farms’ outdated methods of manure management – the result is lower quality of life, illness and environmental destruction.” Amy Van Saun, a senior attorney with Petitioner Center for Food Safety, has said on the lawsuit. 

The 33 petitioners are only asking for a response and for the court to grant it. If the EPA does fails to enforce factory farming pollution regulations and continue to benefit corporate lobbyists, many will suffer. 

“The EPA must answer our call to update its regulations and be accountable to the people who disproportionately suffer from factory farming and the waters we rely on.”