Lawsuit targets USDA's waiver; it claims ‘factory farms’ given pass

A group from Harrison is among the activists suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture over a 2016 exemption rule that allows "medium-sized" feedlots and poultry farms, which can hold tens of thousands of animals, to sidestep the risk analysis process required of "large" operations.

The rule, court documents show, exempts certain poultry, pork, beef and dairy operations that apply for taxpayer-subsidized loans or loan guarantees from the usual process of public notice, public comment and federal oversight and has allowed for the establishment of dozens of "factory farms."

At least 100 medium concentrated animal feeding operations were approved for Arkansas from 2016 to 2017, according to USDA records cited in the complaint. The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Dec. 5. The defendants include the USDA and its Farm Service Agency, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Administrator Richard Fordyce.

The plaintiffs -- eight U.S. agricultural and environmental advocacy groups -- allege that the Agriculture Department developed a rule "categorically excluding [Farm Service Agency] funding of medium-sized concentrated animal feeding operations from National Environmental Policy Act review."

Among the plaintiffs is the group White River Waterkeeper, a Harrison nonprofit that advocates for the northern Arkansas river and its watershed, informs the public of environmental issues and the effects of new feeding operations in the region, including the C&H hog farm in Newton County.

They argue the 2016 exemption for medium operations harms rural communities, affecting their land, water and air quality without federal regulation and oversight.

The exemption effectively eliminated environmental rules that safeguard rural communities for the benefit of large food companies, said Tara Heinzen, a staff attorney at Food and Water Watch, one of the listed plaintiffs.

Before 2016, the USDA's Farm Service Agency performed environmental analyses under an EPA act to assess the impact of government loans or loan guarantees on concentrated farm operations, before the loans or guarantees were approved. The farm agency would weigh the "negative externalities" of the operations on nearby communities and then notify neighbors, farmers and other interested parties of the planned facility or expansion and the risks involved, so they could raise concerns "before the federal government disbursed funds," the complaint said. Risk assessments were conducted if an operation held at least 50,000 chickens, 27,500 turkeys, 1,250 pigs, 500 cattle or 350 dairy cows.

Under the current rule, medium concentrated animal feeding operations are exempt from the rule-making procedure, fast-tracking them for approval of federal loans or loan guarantees. The plaintiffs claim the Agriculture Department is in violation of federal clean air and water acts by allowing the rule's exemption to stand.

Proponents argue the rule makes it easier for farmers to secure funding. Critics say the rule keeps residents in the dark until construction is underway. The plaintiffs contend that through the current rule the Farm Service Agency "now assumes these facilities have no environmental impact and exempts them entirely from analysis under [the National Environmental Policy Act]"

The difference between "large" and "medium" operations can be slim. According to government documents, medium operations can hold up to 124,999 chickens, 54,999 turkeys, 2,499 pigs, 999 cattle or 699 dairy cows. They are considered "large," and must undergo public scrutiny, if the operations exceed those limits by a single animal.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the plaintiffs' attorneys requested USDA documents and found the medium operations that received loans through the 2016 rule exemption were clustered near processing plants. At least 100 were approved for Arkansas between Aug. 3, 2016 and December 2017 without undergoing the same processes required of "large" feeding operations, court records show. Specifically, the Farm Service Agency funded for the period six medium feeding operations in Benton County, nine in Washington County, seven in Madison County and three in Carroll County, the complaint said. Arkansas is one of the leading poultry producers in the nation with contract growers and processing plants clustered in the northwest corner of the state, where Simmons Foods, George's Inc. and Tyson Foods have headquarters.

Casey Dunigan, a resource conservationist for the Washington County Conservation District, a group that requires poultry farmers to create a waste-management plan for their operations, said the plaintiffs are likely trying to "put pressure on the [Farm Service Agency] to stop putting out loans."

Poultry loan guarantees funded through the Small Business Administration also have come under scrutiny this year. In a March report, the administration's inspector general viewed the business relationship between the contract grower and integrator as "affiliative," questioning whether poultry growers qualify for federal assistance.

Dunigan said the complaint's colorful definition of a traditional farm is wrong and misleading, but the rule's exemption likely has an influence in the number of medium feeding operations being approved. Farmers consider the necessary hurdles before deciding what operation they want to build or signing up for a loan, he said.

"But I'd rather have a bunch of mediums than large ones, personally."

Business on 12/13/2018