Cleaning Up Udderly Stinky Policy: Holding Industrial Agriculture Accountable for Water Pollution


What will it take to get Congress to prioritize the health of American citizens and the water supply over agribusiness? Factory farms currently threaten the future of our waterways, farmland, and food system. Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs), enterprises which keep animals in confined quarters for food production, are some of the worst offenders of environmental and public health. Manure from AFOs contains harmful nutrients, hormones, and antibiotics which are destroying our aquatic ecosystems and infecting our bodies. Worse, when an AFO is developed in a community, it lowers property values and destroys the health of residents causing problems such as water-borne illnesses, asthma, and even cancer.

Congress passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, more widely known as the Clean Water Act (CWA) in order to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of our nation’s waters,” yet over forty years later the goals have yet to be achieved. Forty percent of our fresh water supply is not clean enough for us to swim or fish in, let alone drink. The CWA regulates water pollution by dividing sources into two types: point sources, which directly discharge pollutants into the water supply and nonpoint sources, which pollute water indirectly through storm water runoff. AFOs can fall under either definition depending on their size and the type of livestock raised at the facility. Medium and large AFOs are generally classified as point sources and must apply for a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit to control discharges, while small AFOs are classified as nonpoint sources. Although approximately 257,000 AFOs exist, only 6 percent are defined point sources.

Is Congress Chickening Out?

The CWA’s Agricultural Storm Water Exemption frees all agricultural nonpoint sources from applying for an NPDES permit. At the time the legislation was written many AFOs were owned by small family farmers who were expected to be stewards of the land. However, farming practices and technology have changed dramatically since the 1970s. The number of family farmers in the US has declined 63 percent since 1990. Today, only 10 companies produce 90 percent of US meat and poultry. According to research from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), agricultural nonpoint sources are responsible for 60 percent of fresh water pollution. With so many AFOs freely polluting our water supply, we can no longer tolerate outdated policy.

In the 1980s sewage plants, also defined as nonpoint sources, were exempt from applying for a NPDES permit. When research determined that sewage plants were the leading cause of nonpoint source pollution, Congress removed their exemption. If the EPA is reporting that AFOs are having the same effect on the water supply, why hasn’t the government amended the CWA?

 A Homegrown Solution

In December 2013, the EPA took Lois Alt, a poultry farmer to court for failure to apply for an NPDES permit. Although Alt’s farm was generating a harmful amount of manure runoff, the Supreme Court of West Virginia ruled that Alt was exempt from a permit application because her farm was a small AFO. The federal government must remove the agricultural storm water exemption to keep pollution from all AFOs in check.

The Government Accountability Office responded to Alt v. EPA by drafting a plan to amend the CWA. The report suggests that experts work with the states to develop stronger Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs). A TMDL is a “calculation of maximum pollutants that a water body can receive and still safety meet water quality standards.” States are required to incorporate water quality goals into planning efforts. As part of this, they should encourage local governments to develop aquifer protection zoning for bodies of water that do not meet TMDL requirements. This type of zoning keeps AFOs from developing near waters that should be protected.

If Congress requires all nonpoint sources to apply for permits, citizens will be able to take AFOs who do not have strong Nutrient Management Plans (NMP) to court. AFOs who apply for NPDES permits must submit NMPs which can be viewed by citizens at any time. No one wants to live near an AFO. The smells are enough to make even the strongest stomached individuals have a cow. Citizen action is one of the most effective ways to regulate AFOs, especially because state governments and the EPA do not have enough staff or funding to inspect all AFOs.


Lauren Martin is a 2014 graduate of the M.S. Urban and Regional Policy program at Northeastern University. Her research focuses on food access and sustainable agriculture. Lauren can be reached at The views expressed are those of the author.

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