Policy. Advocacy. Change.

Something Stinks: Environmental Racism & the Deregulation of Agricultural Waste

ABFPC intern, Meg McDonald, wrote the following article to highlight three proposed bills impacting agricultural pollution in the United States and North Carolina.

 

On April 18th, the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018—more commonly known as the Farm Bill—was approved by the House Agriculture Committee, advancing the legislation one step closer to enactment. Although the bill is likely to go through numerous changes before it is ratified, its contents warrant scrutiny, as they largely determine what and how food is cultivated, the livelihoods of food growers, and the fate of nutrition programs such as SNAP. In addition to the attention we must give the proposed the Farm Bill, other recent legislative developments regarding agriculture have been overshadowed and must be examined. For example, several bills introduced in Congress in the past year would greatly diminish the required regulations for agricultural waste. These bills would have severe impacts on North Carolina communities—particularly those who live near industrial agriculture sites such as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).

An article by Laurie Ristino published in March in The Hill—“Congress just gave Big Agriculture the pollution green light”—attempted to bring several of these proposed pieces of legislation and their potential effects into the spotlight. The Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council (ABFPC), as a voice in the movement for a sustainable food system in North Carolina, would like to bring this information to the attention of Asheville and Buncombe County residents. We would also like to raise awareness of the relationship between these legislative decisions and the environmental justice issues that are so close to home.

The first bill of concern is H.R. 848, also known as the Farm Regulatory Certainty Act, which was introduced into the House in early 2017. This bill would remove manure from the definition of waste in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The rationale for this change, as stated by Washington Representative and bill sponsor Dan Newhouse, is that the EPA and Congress did not originally intend for the solid waste regulations to apply to animal agriculture when RCRA was passed in 1976. However, proponents of the bill claim that they do not intend to deregulate animal agriculture waste entirely, but rather to make the regulations easier for farmers to comply with.

Two other bills, H.R. 5275 and S. 2421—respectively the Agricultural Certainty for Reporting Emissions Act (ACRE) and the Fair Agricultural Reporting Method Act (FARM)—both have the goal of exempting toxic emissions from agricultural operations from the regulations outlined in the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). The rationale for such an exemption is once again the difficulty many farmers would find in complying with the regulations. Farms have, in fact, been exempt from CERCLA since a 2008 EPA decision. However, a recent Circuit court decision would require farms to comply with CERCLA reporting standards, prompting a quick response from Congress. In March of this year, the FARM Act was tucked into the omnibus spending bill signed by President Trump and has therefore already been approved.

While it is true that the original intent of RCRA may have not included the regulation of agricultural waste, and while it is true that CERCLA may have not been applicable to farms in the past, we must consider the changing landscape of agriculture—especially animal agriculture—even just in the past fifty years. Although U.S. animal agriculture was beginning to industrialize in the 1970s when major environmental legislation such as RCRA were being pushed through, the number of animals raised in factory farms (CAFOs) increased by 88 percent between 1982 and 1997 and has continued to increase ever since. As a result, the sheer amount of solid and airborne waste has also increased. Although agriculture is distinct from other industries, it is still an industry and should be held to the same regulatory standards. It’s important for voices in the sustainable food system movement to advocate for regulations that can relieve some of the stress from the environment and communities affected by agricultural pollution.

The issue of animal agricultural waste is one that hits close to home. North Carolina is currently one of the largest swine producers in the United States, second only to Iowa. In the 1990s, the number of swine in North Carolina grew from 3.7 million to 10 million in just six years. As swine farming rapidly expanded and industrialized, CAFOs became more and more concentrated in the eastern portion of the state, largely in minority and low-income communities. Several studies have shown that the number of CAFOs and the concentration of animal waste is significantly higher in majority-black communities in North Carolina. The resulting environmental, civil rights, and public health concerns lead to clear instances of environmental racism; residencies and communities in close proximity to swine operations are exposed to the brunt of their pollutants and toxic fumes, depleting their quality of life with little ability to hold operations accountable. Legislation like these three bills simply support and exacerbate this unacceptable status quo.

There is still a chance to make your voice heard and to advocate for our environment, our fellow human beings, and our quality of life. H.R. 848, the Farm Regulatory Certainty Act, is still under consideration in the House of Representatives, and the Senate has recently begun constructing their version of the 2018 Farm Bill. As we approach the 2018 midterm elections, our Congressmen are invested in hearing from and representing their constituents. We urge you to contact your elected officials and voice your opposition to H.R. 848; you can call Feeding America’s toll free number (1-888-398-8702) to be connected with your Representative’s office. Moreover, we urge you to learn more about the 2018 Farm Bill and how it can be improved by visiting www.betterfarmbill.org.

If you’re interested in learning more about the environmental justice issues facing North Carolina, check out this article from Environmental Health Perspectives: https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/121-a182/.

Stay tuned for further updates on the Farm Bill and related legislation from the Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council. Thank you for your dedication to making our food system more resilient, just, and sustainable!

 

Meg McDonald is a graduating senior from Warren Wilson College and an intern with the Asheville-Buncombe Food Policy Council. She is studying Political Science and Environmental Studies and aspires to work in the field of environmental law, focusing on issues of environmental injustice and discrimination.

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