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One of the nation’s bedrock environmental protections is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and it’s particularly critical for rural communities. It requires new projects that receive federal funding, including large-scale confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), to undergo an environmental review to assess the project’s impact on the water and air (including the climate). In July, the Trump administration’s Council on Environmental Quality seriously weakened NEPA in a number of ways, including exempting CAFOs from environmental review and limiting public information requirements that allow neighbors to know about planned projects in their community.

Last week, IATP joined with five groups, led by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, to file a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s attempt to degrade the over 40-year-old NEPA. The groups are calling for the CEQ to immediately withdraw the new rule restricting NEPA’s environmental review for new or expanding CAFOs.

While it’s difficult to get clear data, many new or expanding CAFOs have had to rely on federally backed loans for financing because they are unable to get the support of traditional banks. The lawsuit points to U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency (FSA) data in 2010 and 2011, where hundreds of new or expanding CAFOs for contract growers selling to the largest meat and poultry companies like Tyson and Smithfield were backed by government-guaranteed loans. Freedom of Information Act requests revealed that between August 2016 and August 2018, the FSA granted more than 100 guaranteed loans to medium-sized CAFOs, according to the lawsuit.

Under previous NEPA rules, federal agencies were required to assess and make public the environmental impact of a new or expanding CAFO or slaughterhouse before any federal funding was approved. This requirement provided the public an opportunity for input and to raise concerns before a loan was approved. CEQ’s new rule specifically exempts FSA loan guarantees and Small Business Administration (SBA) loans to CAFOs from NEPA review entirely, including language that could force federal agencies to overlook the climate change impacts of CAFOs.

The use of FSA guaranteed loans to back CAFOs has long been controversial. Prior to the last Farm Bill, Midwest family farm groups called for the elimination of FSA guaranteed loans to CAFOs. In late 2018, IATP was part of another legal challenge of a new USDA rule that exempted mid-sized CAFOs from having to undergo environmental review prior to receiving a FSA guaranteed loan. That legal case is still pending.

CAFOs are a major source of air and water pollution. Waste from cow (beef and dairy) and hog CAFOs collects in manure lagoons, which release the greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. CAFOs also emit a variety of air pollutants including ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter. These pollutants can lead to health problems, particularly for children and the elderly. Furthermore, liquid manure is often sprayed onto nearby fields, causing additional greenhouse gas emissions, odor and particulate drift to surrounding communities. When this manure is over-applied to fields, it runs off into waterways, contributing to nitrate contamination. The smell from the manure lagoons also decreases the quality of life for surrounding communities.

There is increasing pushback in rural communities against CAFOs, which are often either owned or controlled by big meat and dairy companies. In California, San Joaquin Valley communities are opposing air and water pollution from mega-dairies. In North Carolina, environmental justice groups are pushing back against the water, air and quality of life problems associated with the high concentration of hog and poultry CAFOs. In Iowa, groups are calling for a moratorium on new operations until water quality issues are addressed. In Minnesota, a proposed dairy CAFO moratorium is a response to the state’s massive loss of small-sized dairies.

The shift toward large-scale CAFOs over the last 30 years has also contributed to rising greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Within the agriculture sector, carbon dioxide emissions increased by 16.2%, methane emissions by 14.4% and nitrous oxide emissions by 7.3% since 1990, the EPA reported. Methane is 28 times as potent as carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide is nearly 300 times as potent. Emissions related to manure management, largely on CAFOs, rose 66% since 1990.

The rapid growth of the CAFO system has also led to farm-level consolidation, pushing small and mid-sized independent producers out of meat and dairy production while serving global meat giants like Smithfield, Tyson and JBS. The new NEPA rules serve as another big favor to these global corporations who have repeatedly failed to protect their meatpacking plant workers during the pandemic.

When public money is spent, it shouldn’t bring more pollution to rural communities. Rural residents should have the opportunity to weigh in on taxpayer-backed projects that directly affect them. To do that, we need to repair the White House’s damage to NEPA.