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“The Clean Water Act requires large factory farms to contain pollution from manure spreading fields,” said Gary Abraham, attorney for the plaintiffs in the case. “If they cannot, they are subject to citizen enforcement actions, including substantial fines and requirements to improve operations to ensure manure contamination is fully contained in their own fields.”

Factory farms, operations that confine hundreds of animals in large barns, have increasingly displaced smaller, more sustainable farms. Factory farms are required to obtain a state Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (SPDES) Permit for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). This is a discharge permit issued pursuant to New York’s Environmental Conservation Law and the federal Clean Water Act.

There are over 1,000 permitted CAFOs in New York State. The Sierra Club, Atlantic Chapter, which is not a party to the legal action, has received numerous odor and water quality complaints from CAFO neighbors. It has recorded numerous instances of failure by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to respond to citizen complaints about CAFOs.

“We are very concerned that the DEC and the New York State Department of Health (DOH) appear to be looking the other way while these huge factory farms foul drinking water supplies and our streams, lakes and rivers with manure”, said Yvonne Tasker-Rothenberg, Chair of the Atlantic Chapter’s Farm and Food Committee.

In New York, the DEC issues CAFO permits. These permits require CAFOs to prevent discharge of nutrients, or manure, but due to a secrecy clause in the law, allows the CAFO to withhold their plans to prevent discharge, a “comprehensive nutrient management plan” from the public and even from the DEC. In most cases only a one-page certification that the CAFO’s management plan is accurate is sent to the DEC. The Willet Dairy nutrient management plan is 3,000 pages long. Until the lawsuit, this plan was kept out of the public eye.

In New York the regulation of CAFO’s is about to become more complicated. A recent decision in federal court has the potential to invalidate New York’s CAFO permits due to the secrecy of the permit

On Feb. 28 a three-judge panel of the federal appellate court for the 2nd Circuit Court ruled that U.S Environmental Protection Agency rules governing concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) violate the Clean Water Act. In Waterkeeper Alliance v. EPA, the court found that the permitting rules did not insure that CAFOs would be held accountable for discharging animal wastes in the nation’s waterways. The court determined that the rules illegally allowed permitting authorities to issue permits without allowing the public to review the terms of CAFO nutrient management plans to manage and limit pollution.
Syracuse, NY, April 19, 2005. A citizen suit against one of the largest factory farms in New York, Willet Dairy in Cayuga County, has been filed in the federal district court in Syracuse. The dairy, started in 1979, reports housing 7,600 cows, none of which are pastured. The complaint charges Willet Dairy and its owners, Dennis and Scott Eldred, with violations of the zero discharge rule and water quality standards under the U.S. Clean Water Act, and with contaminating water wells and causing serious health problems among the seven plaintiffs. Manure and sediments from Willet’s crop fields have allegedly fouled a tributary of Salmon Creek, a designated trout stream.