Lawsuit challenges rule easing environmental reviews for animal confinements

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A typical pen format for swine in many Iowa animal feeding operations

A dozen grassroots organizations have challenged a USDA rule change that would make medium-sized animal confinements exempt from environmental review before receiving government-backed loans from the Farm Services Agency (FSA).

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on December 5, states that the rule change makes it harder for communities to protect themselves from environmental threats by animal production operations. The organizations say the FSA didn’t follow the proper procedures when it made the rule change in late 2016.

The Farm Services Agency could not be reached for comment.

The filing states these checks not only protect nearby communities from potential health and environmental risks, they also serve to alert the community of new or expanding animal feeding operations, allowing them to weigh in on the benefits or harms to the area.

The new rule gives “medium-sized” Controlled Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) “categorical exclusions”, meaning they no longer have to undergo an environmental review mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act in order to receive loans through the FSA. Medium CAFOs can have up to 699 dairy cows, 999 cattle, 2,499 pigs, 54,999 turkeys, and 124,999 chickens.

The FSA Handbook states categorical exclusions “have been determined by the agency to have little or no effect on the environment.”

While the FSA has determined that these animal operations aren’t an environmental risk, the organizations are arguing the rule change was made to benefit big industrial animal production.

The lawsuit states that, while local managers operate these medium-sized CAFOs, they are generally run, managed or controlled by large corporations such as JBS United, Perdue or Smithfield.

“Providing medium CAFOs with this special exemption supports industrial animal production, to the detriment of rural communities,” the plaintiffs said in the filing.

The groups represented in the lawsuit include Dakota Rural Action, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana, Association of Irritated Residents, White River Waterkeeper, Food and Water Watch and the Animal Legal Defense Fund. They represent communities in Arkansas, California, Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa and South Dakota.

The lawsuit acknowledged that these organizations use environmental reviews to carry out their missions of advocacy and public policy influence.

“Public notice and access to environmental information are often the only means of identifying opportunities to influence government actions and policies at the federal, state, and local levels to better protect Plaintiffs’ members and their communities from incoming and expanding CAFOs,” the suit stated. It added that the organizations used the reviews to “inform, organize, advocate around, and protect themselves against the rampant expansion of the CAFO industry in their communities, and its associated negative effects.”

The lawsuit has asked the court to force the FSA to withdraw the categorical exclusion for medium-sized CAFOs. The organizations said there should be a public comment period, as well as an analysis of the impacts before such a change should occur.