A major environmental threat has emerged as factory farms take over more and more of the nation’s livestock production: Pollution from the waste produced by the immense crush of animals.

Iowa has more of the massive livestock feeding lots, known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, than any other state and has come under fire for lax regulations.

Environmental groups that sued the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which is responsible for regulating the facilities in the state, are starting to see results. A bill passed by both the Iowa House and Senate would fund seven additional CAFO inspectors as part of a goal to inspect all of Iowa’s CAFOs by 2018. But activists say the improvements are only small steps and much more needs to be done to protect Iowa waterways.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that America’s livestock create three times as much excreta as the human population. By the agency’s reckoning, a dairy farm with 2,500 cows – which is large, but not exceptional – can generate as much waste as the people in a city the size of Miami.

Yet unlike human waste, which often receives sophisticated treatment, animal waste commonly goes untreated. It typically is held in underground pits or vast manure lagoons, and then spread on cropland as fertilizer.

Some spills have made national headlines, with reports of millions of gallons of waste polluting rivers. In 1995, heavy rains led to a North Carolina swine manure spill that sent 25 million gallons of waste into a river. Just last month, a Minnesota dairy farm spilled up to 1 million gallons of manure, fouling two nearby trout streams.

More routinely, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture has said, large farms generate more manure than the farms can handle, so they spread too much on nearby fields. From there, the material – which the EPA says often contains hormones, pathogens and toxic metals — can run off and contaminate streams, rivers and wells.

Factory Farm Boom
  Credit: FairWarning.org graphic

Environmental advocates documented 800 manure spills in Iowa since 1995. The number of impaired waterways has increased along with the CAFO boom. In 1987, 215 waterways were labeled as impaired by the Iowa DNR. The number jumped to 642 in 2012.

In Iowa’s Mitchell County, a 2009 spill from a hog confinement killed more than 150,000 fish after spreading into a nearby creek. The producer had pumped 29,000 gallons of manure onto the ground in an effort to lower levels in his manure pit. Documents from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources show the manure flowed through a cornfield, then a pasture before entering Otter Creek. The producer was ordered to pay $315 and 7 cents per fish killed.

In a report by the Iowa Environmental Council, Sioux County weighed in with the most manure spills between 2001 and 2011. During that time 23 manure spills reached waterways in Sioux County. Six resulted in fish kills, with an estimated 116,551 fish killed.


Under the Clean Water Act, industrial operations like factories and sewage treatment plants that discharge through pipes are considered “point sources” of pollution. They are required to get a permit that sets limits on pollution and, in many cases, imposes a water testing regime.

It’s a different story for massive livestock farms – what the government calls concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. Although they also are defined under the law as point sources, federal court rulings have frustrated EPA efforts to regulate them.

About 45 percent of the nation’s CAFOs have discharge permits, even though the EPA estimates 75 percent actually are polluting. And even when CAFOs get permits, critics say, their performance in controlling pollution is hard to track and their permit restrictions are tough to enforce.

Leading States
  Credit: FairWarning.org graphic

Each state enforces the Clean Water Act differently. It is the EPA’s job to oversee state programs, but there’s a great deal of variability in the effectiveness of states’ enforcement of clean water laws.

Some, like Michigan and Minnesota, receive high marks from environmental groups for instituting stricter standards than the federal government. But other states such as Iowa, Illinois and Georgia, have poorer records.

In 2007 three community and environmental groups — Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project — asked the EPA to revoke the Iowa’s authority to enforce the Clean Water Act. They said the state’s program was less stringent than the federal one and failed to issue necessary permits or investigate Clean Water Act violations or seek adequate penalties for violations.

The EPA still had not responded to the petition in 2011 when the groups gave notice of an intent to sue the EPA, saying the agency unreasonably had delayed addressing the problem. The agency responded by launching an investigation, reviewing the state agency’s files on large livestock farms and scrutinizing enforcement and compliance data.

The EPA found that the state DNR was not issuing permits as required under federal law or conducting inspections of unpermitted facilities to determine if they needed permits. The EPA also determined that the state agency frequently failed to take appropriate action when it found violations. In 49 percent of cases reviewed the DNR either did not follow its own enforcement policies or failed to act altogether.

In response, Iowa’s DNR released a draft work plan listing planned improvements. It also pledged to inspect all large livestock farms in the state by the end of 2018 — an estimated 8,000 CAFOs.

Gene Tinker, animal feeding operations coordinator for the DNR, said some inspections have been carried out every year but the petition “ramped up the speed” of inspections.

Staff will inspect feedlots looking for any signs of runoff that could carry waste into rivers. The inspectors will also check to see if the facility should be required to hold a federal permit based on the number of animals held and the proximity of waterways, he said.

Currently, only 131 of Iowa’s 3,055 large factory farms have permits under the clean water act, data from the EPA shows.

CAFOs with national permits in EPA Region 7
StateNumber of Facilities Defined as CAFOs Under the Clean Water ActCAFOs with Federal Permits% of CAFOs with Federal Permits
Region 7 Totals4,91797819.9%
Source: U.S. EPA

Tinker said the reason for the low numbers is because most of Iowa’s feedlots are confinements, meaning the animals are kept in a roofed building. Confinements are not allowed to discharge waste into a waterway. Because no amount of discharge is allowed, the facilities do not need permits, Tinker said.

Open feedlots keep animals confined in an unroofed space, usually a large pen with no vegetation on the ground. For open feedlots, small waste discharges during large storms is acceptable, provided the operator has a federal permit called the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.

Tinker said staff used to visit confinement feedlots every three to four years, but staff limitations brought an end to that practice. Feedlots with federal permits must be inspected every five years. Staff also perform spot inspections and investigate complaints.

Cows gather at the trough at an open feedlot close to Anamosa, Iowa on Friday, May 17.
Cattle gather at the trough at an open feedlot close to Anamosa, Iowa, on Friday, May 17. Credit: Lauren Shotwell/IowaWatch file photo

Originally, DNR officials recommended 13 additional inspectors in order to reach the 2018 goal before the legislative bill that passed this year, Gov. Terry Branstad’s signature, established funding for seven. Tinker said DNR leaders hope to meet inspection deadlines despite the smaller staff.

Iowa’s DNR has not added inspectors since 2007. In 2012, the department had the equivalent of 15.25 full-time inspectors, each of whom conducted 27 inspections that met federal guidelines. Even with additional staff, inspectors would have to significantly increase the number of inspections in order to visit the roughly 1,600 facilities every year and keep on target for the 2018 goal.

Rep. Jack Drake, R-Griswold, chairman of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Budget committee, said he hopes the additional inspectors enable the DNR to reach the goal. The department’s progress will be taken into consideration next year when legislators prepare the fiscal year 2015 budget, Drake said.

Rep. Jack Drake, R-Griswold
Rep. Jack Drake, R-Griswold

The inspections also are in line with other efforts by the state to reduce runoff of nutrients, such as nitrogen, which are found in manure and are responsible partially for the creation of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, Drake said.

“We’ve made quite a push this year to reduce the nutrients going into our rivers and streams,” he said.

Jess Mazour, the rural project organizer with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, one of the groups that petitioned the EPA, said the seven inspectors is a “small victory,” but not enough.

“You can have 20 inspectors, you can have 50 inspectors, but they have to have the power to enforce the regulations. The hands-off, voluntary approach is not working. If it were we would not have a water emergency in this state,” Mazour said.

The draft work plan has not yet been made final by the EPA, but Tinker said the DNR isn’t waiting for the ink to dry before heading out for inspections.

“We are currently working on some of the items in the work plan because it needs to be done regardless of when it is signed. We have staff out inspecting feedlots today to determine whether or not a (federal) permit would be needed,” Tinker said.


EPA officials, who declined to be interviewed for this story, have worried for many years about pollution problems from CAFOs and say they have stepped up enforcement in recent years.

But the agency’s plans to regulate more large livestock farms were shot down twice by federal courts over the last decade. Then last July – amid continuing industry opposition and while regulation was a sensitive topic in the presidential campaign — the agency quietly withdrew a proposal to collect information from large livestock farms.

Promises for stricter regulation cropped up during campaigns for the 2008 election as well.

For Chris Peterson, an Iowa hog farmer, promises made by then-candidate Barack Obama on the 2007 campaign trail were music to his ears:

“We’ll tell ConAgra it’s not the Department of Agribusiness, it’s the Department of Agriculture,” Obama had said.

Obama promised, in a white paper, to strictly regulate large livestock farms, which he said “pollute the environment” and “jeopardize public health.”

Over the years, Peterson had watched with growing alarm as large factory farms ballooned, making Iowa the nation’s largest pork producer. He’d barely hung on when the large meat companies came in, wrested control of the market and drop-kicked the price of pork, causing 30 to 40 thousand small and mid-sized pork farmers to leave the business in a span of a couple of years.

Along with the boom in pork production came a spike in water pollution and manure spills and growing concerns about the health effects of antibiotics federal to livestock animals.

Petersen was relieved to see that Obama had a plan that promised stricter regulations, better enforcement of environmental law and a limit to government funds for certain federal subsidies. It hit all the points that community activists could have asked.

“It was words that came right out of the peoples’ mouth,” Petersen said.

Today, Petersen’s hopes have faded. President Obama’s administration has failed to make good on candidate Obama’s promises to get tough on the industrial livestock sector. The result is that the EPA remains largely in the dark about such basic facts as which operations are potentially the biggest polluters and where they are located.

Scott Edwards, Food and Water Watch attorney
Scott Edwards, Food and Water Watch

“It’s basically the Wild West out there when it comes to CAFOs,” said Scott Edwards, an attorney for the advocacy group Food and Water Watch.

Despite his disappointment, Petersen said he still believes Obama and regulators at the EPA and U.S. Department of Agriculture are well-meaning but up against a formidable industry. “They all have good hearts,” he said, “but meanwhile, they’re running into the buzz saw of big agriculture and big money.”


Industry groups say those who call for tighter regulation rely on outdated data and ignore evidence of the progress the industry has made through improved technology and farming practices.

Michael Formica, chief environmental counsel for the National Pork Producers’ Council, said most of the waste in newer swine farms goes into deep pits that aren’t vulnerable to overflow the way manure lagoons are. He added that few farms endanger waterways by applying too much manure on fields.

“The value of the nutrients in the manure is worth way too much for people not to want to harness it and utilize it,” he said.

Federal estimates vary, but EPA officials believe 20,000 large U.S. farms qualify as CAFOs. That would be up more than fivefold since 1982, when agriculture officials concluded that 3,600 farms were big enough to meet the federal definition of a CAFO.

The EPA’s definition of a large CAFO includes livestock operations that confine at least 700 dairy cows, 2,500 pigs weighing more than 55 pounds, 125,000 meat chickens, 30,000 laying hens or 1,000 beef cattle.

The EPA says at least 29 states cite animal agriculture as a contributor to water quality problems.

In February, the agency released a report that found 55 percent of U.S. streams and rivers were in “poor condition for aquatic life” and cited pollution from livestock and crop farms as a leading factor. Agricultural runoff is partly to blame for a so-called dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that was the size of New Jersey in 2011, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


For people who live near big livestock farms, like Lori Nelson, there’s also the problem of stench.

Nelson grew up on a farm and still keeps some animals near Bayard, Iowa, on two rural acres that, when she bought it, were peaceful, surrounded by soy fields. But seven years ago, she got some unwelcome neighbors — two large hog farms housing a total of 5,000 animals.

That many hogs produce as much waste as 15,000 people and, on bad days, the nose-burning smell is enough to send Nelson and her husband running from their cars to the house. It was also enough to convert Nelson into an unlikely activist. She is working to halt the spread of industrial livestock farms in Iowa.

A tractor spreads manure on a field near Lori Nelson’s Bayard, Iowa, home. Credit: Provided by Lori Nelson

Nelson no longer drinks from her well for fear of contamination. She said manure from the swine farms often is spread to the edge of a tributary to the Raccoon River — a river whose levels of potentially harmful nitrates found in fertilizers and manure runoff hit record levels in May.

Nelson figures she has no hope of selling her own place. Its value tanked when the hogs moved in; she said wouldn’t get what she owes on the property now. Even if she could move to another rural area, there’s no guarantee a CAFO wouldn’t move in next door.

“There’s no place to go. It seems like anywhere you go, you’re eventually going to be surrounded by a factory farm,” she said.

Federal reviews have found that some state authorities in charge of enforcing the Clean Water Act are doing a poor job, and that the EPA’s oversight of these programs has fallen short.

At the same time, industry groups and their lawmaker allies in a handful of states are pushing to insulate the livestock industry from scrutiny from citizens, environmental and animal welfare groups and regulators.

Some are trying to enshrine “Right to Farm” provisions in state constitutions, even though similar laws are already on the books in every state. In other cases they are trying to criminalize activists’ undercover investigations at livestock farms.

“The industry obviously has a lot of money and (is) very important to the American economy and American people. Trying to regulate farms is a politically dangerous thing to do in the U.S.” said Kathy Hessler, a law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore.


The EPA’s concerns about CAFOs go back at least to 1998, when the Clinton Administration, in a document called the Clean Water Action Plan, concluded that pollution from factories and treatment plants had been dramatically reduced. But it said that pollution from farms, including livestock operations, remained a serious problem. [Ed. note: The year for the Clean Water Action Plan was incorrect in an earlier version of this story. It since has been corrected to 1998.]

Maps shows the locations of manure spills in Iowa between 2000 and 2001.
Maps shows the locations of manure spills in Iowa between 2000 and 2001. Credit: Source: Iowa Department of Natural Resources

Still, it wasn’t until 2003 when the EPA, prodded by a lawsuit from environmental groups, issued a new rule intended to require all large livestock farms to get Clean Water Act permits unless they could demonstrate that they had no potential to pollute.

This blanket requirement would have vastly expanded the number of operations with permits. The agency justified the move by saying there were many documented instances of pollution from CAFOs lacking federal permits and that these farms might escape detection because they — unlike more easily monitored polluters, such as factories or water treatment plants — discharge only intermittently (during rain, for example).

That plan, however, was quickly contested in court. Industry groups argued the agency could require permits only for factory farms that were actually discharging into waterways — meaning those that acknowledge polluting or have been found by inspectors to pollute. The EPA’s authority, they argued, did not extend to potential polluters. In 2005, a federal judge ruled in the industry’s favor.

EPA came back in 2008 with a dialed-back rule.

This time around, the agency would not require all CAFOs to get permits. Only those confirmed to be discharging into waterways or those that, as the agency put it, “proposed to discharge” would need a permit. Or, permits would be needed for those in a second category of CAFOs that, the EPA said, were “designed, constructed, operated, or maintained such that a discharge would occur” — in other words, ones that inevitably would pollute.

Once again, industry groups filed suit, arguing, as they did in the challenge to the 2003 rule, that the EPA could require permits only of “actual discharges.” A federal court agreed, vacating in 2011 the section of the rule dealing with the second category of CAFOs.

The rulings, environmentalists say, left the EPA in what some called a “catch me if you can” situation—able to do little without proving, after the fact, that a farm has polluted.


Then the EPA, prodded by a lawsuit from environmental groups, unveiled a comparatively modest plan to learn more about the scope of the problem. It proposed collecting basic information about large livestock farms, a potential starting point for stepped up oversight.

The move was intended to address a key weakness in the EPA’s ability to regulate large livestock farms — there is no national database showing where these farms are located, who owns them and whether they are polluting. A report critical of the agency in 2008 from the Government Accountability Office called the EPA’s limited data “inconsistent and inaccurate.”

Initially, the EPA agreed to ask owners or operators of large CAFOs to submit 14 pieces of information, including names, addresses and geographic coordinates.

But by the time the agency released the proposal for comment in October 2011, it was reduced to two watered down options — one to require less information, and the other to require reporting only by farmers in certain watersheds.

Talking points prepared by the EPA for a meeting between officials of the agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, contained in a document obtained by FairWarning through a Freedom of Information Act request, indicated that the changes followed “concerns raised both by industry and USDA.”

Cows at a large Wisconsin dairy farm.
Cows at a large Wisconsin dairy farm. Credit: Kate Golden/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

The Office of Management and Budget, a White House agency that reviews proposed regulations, also played a role. For example, documents show that the OMB suggested that the EPA change some requirements, such as allowing an “authorized representative” of a farm to provide his or her name instead of a CAFO owner to protect the operation’s privacy.

Even so, the meat industry and its congressional allies objected. One of their main arguments was that collecting and making the information publicly available would pose a security threat to farmers and the U.S. food supply.

A letter signed by dozens of industry groups and sent to the OMB cited allegedly illegal acts by animal rights groups, including incidents in which hens and turkeys were set free.

It is “absolutely incomprehensible that, while other parts of the federal government are trying to protect the security of our food supply, OMB would even consider allowing EPA to undermine these efforts by making public the locations of animal production facilities,” the letter read.

On July 13 – less than four months before the presidential election and while the Obama Administration was being hammered as too zealous about regulation — the EPA quietly withdrew the proposal.

For environmental groups, it was a bitter defeat.

The “information-gathering rule was supposed to lift the veil on CAFOs,” said Edwards, of Food and Water Watch. “Instead the EPA just got up and walked away.”

Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor and president of the Center for Progressive Reform, is among those who believe the EPA likely was pressured by the White House to withdraw the rule. “You don’t just write a rule and then say, ‘Oops, we made a mistake,’” she said.

The White House did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

In place of an information-gathering rule, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency settled for collecting data from existing sources—a solution the agency earlier said wouldn’t work. An EPA-commissioned assessment of state and federal resources available online showed large gaps in the available data.

FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org) is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit investigative news organization focused on public health and safety issues.

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  1. As a life-long Iowan, it saddens me to say I have told my children not to drink ANY tap water from anywhere in the state. I grew up in a rural area drinking well water that was crystal clear and delicious. Today, I would never consider drinking from a well or any municipal water source. Yes, the industry is good for our economy, but at what cost to our environment? Just looking at the map of spills, it’s evident the “self regulation” plan isn’t working.

  2. Why is untreated waste allowed to be discharged into out streams and waterways anyway? So they can buy a permit and it is OK? What about the ones that don’t buy a permit and pollute anyway? In Missouri only Class 1 CAFOs are required to buy a permit. There are no inspections or inventories to verify population, no monitoring of actual waste generation; the class size depends entirely on what the CAFO claims the population to be NOT ON CAPACITY AS IT SHOULD so permits are voluntary at best. That permit does not clean the water or take out the toxins and chemicals, or restore health and/or life? With waste of this scale you would think someone would notice maybe they need some form of waste treatment system like is required for humans.

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