EPA Made 2023 Commitment To CAFO Permitting Reform But No Action Evident to Date 

In August 2023, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) publicly disclosed an ambitious and extensive internal plan to conduct a potentially transformative reform process of NPDES permitting confined animal feeding operations (“CAFO”) under the Clean Water Act. The commencement of this process can best be described as a “soft launch” in that it was first revealed in a relatively obscure agency decision denying an administrative petition pending since 2017.  National attention to this undertaking will certainly grow as it progresses due to its potential, at least on paper, to be the seeds of significant changes to the CAFO permitting and regulatory scheme which has become an integral part of the national agricultural lexicon. 

On March 8, 2017, a group of environmental groups led by Food & Water Watch filed a petition with EPA seeking a complete re-write of the Clean Water Act CAFO permitting system embodied in federal regulations. Petitions seeking changes to federal executive agency regulations are quite common. While very rarely producing the requested relief, they create an agency decision-making process the results of which can be appealed to federal court. This serves to place a particular objective of the petitioners in play with an agency and, most importantly, provides a chance to appeal the results to a federal court which may be more sympathetic than the agency to some portion of the petitioners’ arguments. Generally, those arguments are that a regulation, on its face or as applied, fails to comply with the authorizing legislation’s text. Such was the case in this instance. 

The 2017 Food and Water Watch petition’s first paragraph summarized its contents as follows: “[T]he agricultural sector, including CAFOs, remains largely unregulated and is now the nation’s leading source of water quality impairments. The Agency’s current CAFO regulations are plainly not up to the task of protecting our waterways from industrial livestock operations.” On August 15, 2023, after six years pending and a subsequent October 2022 petition seeking similar relief, the EPA denied both the 2017 and 2022 petitions.   

Within the agency denials, the EPA announced it reform undertaking, which its website currently describes as “a comprehensive evaluation of the CAFO program” which will include “a detailed study of the CAFO effluent limitations guidelines [ELGs] as well as establishing a Federal Advisory Committee, the [Animal Agriculture and Water Quality Subcommittee (AAWQ)], . . . through which a diverse array of stakeholders will help inform EPA’s efforts to improve its CAFO program.” 

Noteworthy text within the EPA decisions included the following:

  • “EPA also shares your concern that CAFOs can be a significant source of pollutants into waters of the United States. The Agency recognizes that there may be opportunities to do more to address these pollutants.”
  • “Federal and state agency staff, have experienced challenges effectively implementing and assuring compliance with the current CWA CAFO regulatory requirements.”

The EPA’s statements do not read like an agency entirely confident that all is well with the status quo of its enforcement efforts of the Clean Water Act concerning CAFOs. 

Following the August 2023 decisions, the EPA published a Federal Register Notice on November 16, 2023, soliciting nominations to the AAWQ subcommittee by a deadline of January 24, 2024.  Thus far, there has been no further word on appointments.  EPA’s “detailed study” of the CAFO ELGs was in fact previously announced in January 2023.  However, there has been no public evidence of that undertaking being conducted over one year later.   

Meanwhile, the federal courts are now also involved. On September 8, 2023, the EPA’s denials were appealed through the filing of a petition for review with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, docketed at Food & Water Watch, et al. v. EPA, No. 23-2146. American Farm Bureau Federation, National Pork Producers’ Council, U.S. Poultry & Egg Association and United Egg Producers have become intervening parties to that case. Presently, briefing by the parties is slated to conclude by June 1, 2024. A decision could take anywhere from a few months to a few years, and the outcome at the Ninth Circuit (perceived as potentially more sympathetic to the petitioners than the other eleven Circuit Courts of Appeals) remains uncertain. The same could be said about the prospects of any attempt by a dissatisfied party to appeal an adverse outcome to the U.S. Supreme Court (perceived as not sympathetic to the petitioners).  

The coming months or years will tell us how diligently EPA pursues unilateral changes of its own accord in its Clean Water Act enforcement regarding CAFOs, either as presently defined or under a new regulatory design. Over that time, we will also learn whether decisions about the future of EPA’s CAFO regulatory and permitting scheme will be dictated by the federal courts. This effort could alter not only the federal definition of a CAFO itself and how potential surface water discharges of animal production operations are regulated and permitted, but also may include new tools like monitoring or drastically overhauled effluent standards. Any changes at the federal level will assuredly impact each states’ undertakings, where applicable, of NPDES and non-NDPES water quality programs and, most importantly, state budgeting for the same.  

Duer, Brook, and Paul Goeringer. “EPA Made 2023 Commitment To CAFO Permitting Reform But No Action Evident to Date.Southern Ag Today 4(10.5). March 8, 2024. Permalink