Facts About CAFOs
What is a CAFO?
Also see CAFO in the glossary.
What pollutants do CAFOs produce?
Another type of CAFO is the feedlot, which keeps the animals outdoors in pens. Here the manure waste accumulates on the ground, often washing off into nearby ditches and streams.
What's in CAFO waste?
In addition to plant nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, CAFO waste is likely to contain:
Nutrients in this CAFO waste can cause bright-green algae blooms in ditches, streams, and lakes. As these surface-water algae blooms die off, the oxygen in the water is depleted. What does this do? It can lead to fish kills. Additionally, drinking-water plants must remove these nutrients before water is fit for consumption.
Pathogens such as E.coli bacteria, cryptosporidium, and salmonella, all of which can cause sickness or death in humans and animals, may be present in CAFO wastes.
How do CAFOs pollute water?
Water pollution is possible at virtually any point in a CAFO's operation.
It may take dozens of trips per day by semis or tanker trucks to dispose of CAFO waste. These trucks haul the wastes from the production area waste-storage structures to fields that are often many miles away.
One of the main sources of CAFO-caused pollution in Michigan comes from discharges of manure and other wastes through the soil into field drainage tiles, which carry the wastes directly into county drains and streams.
When CAFO wastes are applied to farm fields, water pollution can be caused by overapplication of wastes, direct runoff into surface waters, or by traveling through the ground- or catch basins into field tiles or drainage ditches that discharge directly into surface waters. Tests have shown that waste applied to the surface of a field can take a little as 45 minutes to reach the field tiles three to four feet below the surface.
How do CAFOs pollute air?
Some of the sources of CAFO air pollution are:
The air pollution inside the buildings is potentially deadly to the animals and humans inside if the fans ever stop operating. Normally the fans simply blow the contaminated air to the outside where it can pollute the whole community. Poultry operations blow ammonia and particulate matter, including feathers and chicken feces out of the buildings.
Hog operations often build the waste storage structure immediately beneath the area where the animals are kept, with slats in the floors to allow wastes to simply drop into the pit.
The CAFO wastes stored in waste storage structures is not treated or aerated, often resulting in extreme off-gassing of pollutants such as hydrogen sulfide (H2S) when the wastes are transported and sprayed onto farm fields.
For example, once or twice each year many liquid waste CAFO systems will scrape the solids out of the bottom of the waste storage structures and spread these thick, fermented wastes onto farm fields, causing even worse air pollution.
How do CAFOs impact human health?
Are CAFOs sustainable?
Do CAFOs need taxpayer subsidies?
CAFOs can't survive without taxpayer subsidies. CAFOs receive many subsidies, such as milk price support guarantees, federal EQIP money through the Farm Bill, Development Right Agreements, tax abatements, grants, bonds, even economic development funds for roads.
These taxpayer supports not only encourage the growth of this industry, they undercut the ability of traditional livestock operations to compete with CAFOs. Without the subsidies, CAFOs would fail financially.
How are CAFOs regulated and permitted?
Federal laws establish minimum standards for the regulation of any activity that causes air pollution or water pollution. However, through aggressive lobbying by the promoters of CAFOs, federal laws for the environmental oversight of CAFOs are extremely weak.
Currently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides no regulation of air pollution problems from CAFOs. Under the Right-to-Know provisions of CERCLA 42 U.S.C. §11001 et seq. (1986). Also known as Title III of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA), the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act - otherwise known as EPCRA (pronounced EP-kra) - was enacted by Congress as the national legislation on community safety. This law is designed to help local communities protect public health, safety, and the environment from chemical hazards. CAFOs are required to report emissions of some pollutants, most notably ammonia. This requirement led to disclosure that the largest emitter of ammonia in the country is a dairy CAFO in Oregon.
The federal Clean Water Act does provide some regulation of CAFOs, although interpretations of the extent of those requirements are being litigated. State laws must be at least as restrictive as the federal law, but in Michigan and some other states it has required citizens to bring challenges to state's delegation under the Clean Water Act to force the agencies to implement the laws. Federal law requires that any CAFO which has had an illegal discharge into surface waters must obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit in order to continue operations. Several states (including Michigan) now require NPDES permits for all CAFOs, including new ones.
It is important to review the regulations in your state in order to understand what is allowed and not allowed. (View EPA links to state program websites.)
State and federal agricultural agencies often play a role in establishing voluntary standards that CAFOs and other livestock operations are expected to abide by. In some instances, the agricultural agencies will act as the gatekeeper for securing any enforcement actions by the state, particularly in the area of air pollution. In Michigan, for example, the Department of Agriculture is given the responsibility for investigating air pollution complaints from CAFOs, although they have no enforcement authority. Except in an emergency, the agriculture director must make a referral to the Department of Environmental Quality before any action can be taken by the environmental agency regarding those complaints.