A coalition of environmental and community groups is challenging the USDA’s decision to exclude loans to medium-sized “concentrated animal feeding operations” from environmental analysis.
The eight plaintiff organizations — Dakota Rural Action, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana, Association of Irritated Residents, White River Waterkeeper, Food & Water Watch and Animal Legal Defense Fund — claim in a lawsuit that USDA violated federal environmental and administrative laws in making the change.
In 2016, the USDA’s Farm Service Agency exempted from “environmental assessments” the loans its makes to CAFOs with fewer than 700 dairy cows, 1,000 cattle, 2,500 pigs, 55,000 turkeys and 125,000 chickens.
Previously, the threshold for environmental assessments was set at 350 dairy cows, 500 cattle, 1,250 pigs, 27,500 turkeys and 50,000 chickens.
“Small farmers, the communities within which they live and farm, and environmental, animal, and public health advocates now first learn about an incoming or expanding medium CAFO — and the risks it poses to rural drinking water supplies, air quality, confined and wild animals, and public health and safety — only once construction or expansion has begun, after federal funding decisions have been made and loans have been disbursed,” the complaint said.
Representatives of USDA’s Farm Service Agency and the Department of Justice, which will defend against the complaint, said they do not comment on pending litigation.
Medium-sized CAFOs are still subject to a “worksheet” to check whether the facility would create “extraordinary circumstances” that would warrant an environmental assessment, but the plaintiffs claim the public remains excluded from this process and that local FSA administrators don’t evenly adhere to it.
The complaint also alleges that FSA didn’t explain its reasons for excluding medium-sized CAFOs from environmental analysis and no longer considers impacts to local residents and waterways when determining whether a facility would pose “extraordinary circumstances.”
Since the new regulation was enacted, Freedom of Information Act requests have uncovered that FSA loans have made available to hundreds of CAFOs in several states that are just barely beneath the threshold for large facilities, allowing them to avoid the environmental and public scrutiny to which they’d previously be subject, the complaint said.
“Public notice of these facilities is critical to neighboring residents because it provides them with information about CAFOs being built or expanded in their communities, and their impacts, that residents cannot obtain elsewhere,” according to the plaintiffs.
The lawsuit is seeking a court order throwing out the 2016 rule as well as an injunction barring the agency from relying on it for making funding decisions, with any loans approved under the regulation being declared “null and void” unless they’re already fully implemented.