A U.S. District Court ruling has sided with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over administrative steps to collect information for the purpose of regulating concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

Judge Randolph Moss, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, dismissed a lawsuit brought by a coalition of consumer, environmental and animal rights groups against EPA. The lawsuit charged EPA failed to meet federal mandates when collecting and reporting information regarding CAFOs under the Clean Water Act (CWA).

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 lawsuit in August 2013 in the U.S District Court for the District of Columbia, challenging EPA’s withdrawal of a proposed information-reporting rule (http://environmentalintegrity.org/news_reports/08_28_2013.php). That case (Environmental Integrity Project, et. al v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Case 1:13-cv-01306) was reassigned to Judge Moss, on Nov. 19, 2014.

In his ruling, Judge Ross said EPA’s decision to withdraw the information rule and instead rely on existing state and federal information sources to gather information met standards required under law.


Additional history

The legal battle stems from EPA oversight of CAFOs through National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) regulations, dating back to about 2000. In 2008, the General Accountability Office issued a report concluding EPA did not possess reliable information it needed to identify and inspect CAFOs.

In October 2011, EPA published a proposed CAFO reporting rule, which would have required all CAFOs nationwide to submit basic information to EPA; or required EPA to collect basic information from CAFOs in specific watersheds. The proposed rule would have allowed EPA to collect information, like locations and animal population sizes, and make it publicly available and readily searchable through an EPA website.

Farmers, agricultural organization, USDA and even the Department of Homeland Security expressed concerns that the proposed rule was not only a serious overreach of EPA’s authority, but would create a road map for activists to harass individual families, and aid and abet terrorism and provide a threat to the nation’s food security.

EPA withdrew the proposed rule in July 2012, saying it was more appropriate to obtain CAFO information from existing sources, including USDA and state agencies already collecting the information.


CAFO information release

CAFO information gathered and publicly released by EPA has already spawned another ongoing legal battle.

In fall of 2012, environmental advocacy organizations submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, seeking the release of information EPA already had on reporting CAFOs.

In January 2013, EPA released personal information about tens of thousands of livestock and poultry farmers, ranchers and their families in 30 states. The database included the names of farmers, ranchers and sometimes other family members, home addresses and GPS coordinates, home telephone numbers and personal emails. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) also said it was notified by EPA that CAFO information released through a FOIA request included many family farmers and ranchers who feed less than 1,000 head and were not subject to regulation under CWA. 

After the initial release, EPA attempted to recall some of the records, replacing it with a new set of data after redacting some of the personal information. However, one of the environmental advocacy groups, Food & Water Watch, said it would retain all original records.

In July 2013, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) filed an injunction in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota to block EPA from publicly releasing additional data under FOIA requests until a court could clarify EPA’s obligation to keep personal information about citizens private.

In January 2015, a federal judge in Minnesota ruled EPA was permitted to release information regarding CAFOs.

Shortly after that ruling, however, further release of CAFO information was blocked by a court injunction, and AFBF and NPPC formally filed an appeal on April 24, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.