Karen Steuer is Director of Government Relations for the Pew Environment Group.
In all of the debate on Capitol Hill about cutting budgets, you wouldn't expect water to get a great deal of attention. But it should.
The Continuing Resolution set to emerge from the House this week makes drastic reductions in support for critical functions of the Environmental Protection Agency—the federal entity charged with protecting water supplies for hundreds of millions of Americans. But slashing the EPA's budget, without shifting legal and financial responsibility to polluters, will leave America's fisheries, drinking water supplies and coastal areas vulnerable. No one else is guarding the door to the henhouse—quite literally, it turns out, when it comes to water pollution.
Industrial animal agriculture operations in the U.S. generate up to one billion tons of manure annually, most of which is applied—untreated—to cropland. As a result, according to the EPA, drinking water sources for an estimated 43 percent of the U.S. population have suffered some level of pathogen contamination associated with livestock operations, and 29 states have identified livestock feeding operations as a source of water pollution. In Congressional testimony, the U.S. Geological Survey identified livestock manure as the single largest source of nitrogen pollution in major rivers across the country, including rivers in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Florida, Arkansas, California and Wisconsin.
As food animal production in the U.S. has shifted from family farms to a concentrated industrial production system, efforts to protect the environment, rural communities and water supplies have not kept pace. These massive operations, housing thousands of hogs or hundreds of thousands of chickens in tight quarters, produce manure and other waste on an equally large scale, but continue to be regulated under a now-antiquated set of rules designed for small family farms. Corporations that own slaughterhouses, packing facilities and livestock often contract with farmers to raise the animals to the point of slaughter and argue that they bear no liability for compliance with Clean Water Act permits during the production period. The companies own the animals; the farmers are stuck with the manure.
Under this system, corporate owners have not been obligated to provide any financial assistance to farmers for the costs of waste treatment and disposal. As a result, local water utilities spend millions monitoring and treating this water pollution, and treasured gems like the Chesapeake Bay suffer from livestock-related pollution, while taxpayers pay the cleanup costs through EPA water programs. These programs are now on the chopping block.
Congressional efforts to find legitimate savings through efficiency and the elimination of waste in government programs are of course laudable. But members of Congress also have a responsibility to ensure that alternatives to government spending are identified so the health and welfare of millions of Americans is not jeopardized.
When it comes to water pollution, the polluters—and not the general public—should be responsible for cleaning up their own waste. It¹s time for industrial animal agriculture to pay its fair share.