Environmental Groups Fight Department Of Environmental Conservation’s Toothless Industrial Animal Facility Permits

Current permits fail to protect drinking and recreational waters from untreated animal waste at industrial animal facilities


Suzanne Novak, Staff Attorney, Earthjustice, (212) 823-4981


Ben Roussel, (212) 255-2575

Last night Waterkeeper Alliance, Riverkeeper, Cortland – Onondaga Federation of Kettle Lake Associations Sierra Club, and Theodore Gordon Flyfishers, Inc., represented by Earthjustice, served the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) with a lawsuit challenging a permit with lax terms that could result in pathogens and animal waste pollutants being discharged into New York waterways.

The suit seeks to ensure that DEC’s permit covering “concentrated animal feeding operations” (CAFOs) contains pollution prevention safeguards and is reviewed and enforceable by DEC and by the public, whose waters could be affected by disease-causing animal sewage.

The permit in question pertains to about 250 animal facilities in New York State with 200 or more animals, which are classified as CAFOs. The average facility covered by this DEC permit produces about as much waste as a town of 82,000 people. Unlike towns and cities, which have sewage treatment plants that are strictly regulated and tested to create a non-polluting discharge, CAFO animal waste is not monitored and can be disposed of in close proximity to public drinking water supplies.

Under the permit DEC recently issued, applying facilities would not have to share a detailed plan for proper waste management with DEC, nor would the public be allowed to see the detailed plan. In addition, the permit does not insist that a facility’s private plan include enforceable waste management measures. The suit seeks to protect public waterways from disease-causing animal sewage by forcing DEC to add these accountability measures to the permit guidelines.

New York is the country’s fourth largest milk-producing state with more than 600,000 dairy cows, each of which produces over 100 pounds of waste per day. The way this manure is stored and disposed of has serious implications for human health and water quality. Over the last several years, industrial-sized dairies have been responsible for numerous water contamination incidents.

In 2015 alone there were over 40 documented cases of water contamination caused by CAFO animal waste. Just last month, one of the largest facilities in the state was responsible for two manure spills in the span of one week — one of the spills entered Cayuga Lake and was found to be “precariously close” to local water supplies.

“The public depends on the DEC to make sure their local waterways are safe for drinking and recreational use,” said Earthjustice Attorney Eve Gartner, who is serving as lead counsel on the suit. “DEC is issuing permits for these CAFOs that lack the basic enforceable restrictions that communities need to protect their water supplies.”

“There are thousands of responsible farms in New York State, but industrial-scale CAFOs are notorious polluters. Animal fecal matter in public rivers and streams is never a good thing,” said Riverkeeper Staff Attorney Mike Dulong. “DEC should not leave it up to the facilities to set the terms of the permit. Given the risks involved, these permits should be thorough, enforceable and reviewable by public and state agencies.”

Local citizen groups in high-risk communities are very concerned. “In this rural region of Central New York, we value our farms. Our lakes and streams provide an economic base alongside farming, and we must do all we can to guarantee the protection of those waters,” said Cortland – Onondaga Federation of Kettle Lake Associations spokesperson Tarki Heath. “The health of our lakes and streams is essential for the wellbeing of us all.”

Public oversight serves to bolster, not hinder, the New York dairy industry. “New York State is proud of its dairy farms and rightfully so,” said Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter Chair Erin Riddle, who grew up on a dairy farm in western New York. “But when our state government fails to provide transparent safeguards protecting community water sources against pollution, industrial-scale animal facilities can literally poison the well.”

Instances of drinking water contamination in New York are common. “The damage that industrial-scale dairies can cause to water quality is not hypothetical,” said Waterkeeper Alliance Senior Attorney Kelly Hunter Foster. “It is imperative that DEC meet their obligation to issue dairy CAFOs permits that protect water supplies and recreational waters from contamination by animal waste.”

An industrial cattle feedlot.

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