DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will gather information about factory farms to determine whether more should be regulated as part of a settlement with environmental groups concerned about water pollution.
The EPA reached the settlement Tuesday with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Waterkeeper Alliance.
The groups filed a federal lawsuit in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans in early 2009, claiming the EPA gave too much discretion to farm operators in determining which farms needed permits to discharge waste into waterways.
The settlement requires the EPA to gather information about factory farms that don't have discharge permits and determine whether they should be regulated.
Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Jon Devine said it could improve pollution control standards for factory farms.
"This settlement puts the EPA on the path to collecting more data about factory farms and it will in turn give us the tools we need to determine which ones are polluting and how best to regulate them," Devine said.
The EPA acknowledged the settlement Wednesday night and said in a statement that the agency is "committed to protecting public health and the environment and advancing the agency's goals to protect America's waters."
The agency said it would propose a rule to collect information from the factory farms and would take final action on the proposed rule within two years. It will seek public comment as part of that process.
Representatives for the Sierra Club and Waterkeeper Alliance praised the settlement, saying it will help ensure farms follow environmental laws and protect the nation's waterways.
In settling the lawsuit, the EPA agreed to gather more information about large factory farms known as confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. The agency will look at the number of animals, how much waste they produce and how waste is stored and disposed of — whether it is applied to farm land as fertilizer, shipped to another location or used for other purposes.
The EPA defines CAFOs as farms with any of the following: 700 dairy cows; 1,000 veal calves; 1,000 cattle; 2,500 swine weighing more than 55 pounds or 10,000 swine weighing less than 55 pounds; 10,000 sheep or lambs; 55,000 turkeys; and between 30,000 and 125,000 chickens, depending on the manure handling system used.
Michael Formica, chief environmental counsel for the National Pork Producers Council, criticized the EPA for making the deal without talking to farmers.
"There was no outreach to the other side," he said. "It was a one-sided sweetheart deal."
Formica said the settlement conflicts with multiple court decisions and if implemented, would lead to a larger concentration of livestock as producers grow their herds to offset the costs of manure management systems the EPA could require.
"It will lead to a greater concentration and more factory farms," he said.
Formica also said that while the pork industry has taken steps over the past 15 years to control the runoff of waste into waterways, other sectors of the livestock industry, such as beef and poultry, don't have the same measures in place.
Tom Shipley, a spokesman for the Iowa Cattlemen's Association, said he wasn't aware of the lawsuit but more regulations would cost farmers and could encourage some to get out of the cattle business.
"It would depend on what size they consider need to be regulated," Shipley said. "There are potentials for the inability of (producers) to spend the kind of money needed to eliminate any possible runoff, even from nature."
A telephone message left Wednesday for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association was not immediately returned.