The EPA Region 5 recently published a refreshingly blunt report on the state of concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) permitting in Illinois, and the assessment is disturbing. EPA concluded that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting program for CAFOs “does not meet minimum thresholds for an adequate program.” Ouch.
As in many other states around the country, agriculture in Illinois is one of the state’s leading economic drivers and one of the leading sources of water pollution. The state has the fourth largest concentration of large-scale hog confinements in the United States, producing 4.5 million hogs each year. This massive hog production, highly concentrated in CAFOs, comes at a significant environmental cost. According to the state’s 2004 Water Quality Report, more than 85% of Illinois’ public lake acreage is impaired, largely attributable to agriculture. Moreover, the agriculture industry is responsible for 73% of Illinois’ river and stream impairments.
As a result, environmental groups filed a petition in 2008 to request that EPA withdraw Illinois EPA’s delegated authority to administer the CAFO permitting program. Under the Clean Water Act, EPA may delegate authority to states to administer the NPDES permitting program, but that authority may also be withdrawn under certain statutory conditions. For example, EPA can withdraw delegated authority when a state agency is no longer acting sufficiently to administer the program in compliance with federal requirements, such as failing to issue NPDES permits, to act on violations, or to seek adequate enforcement penalties or collect adequate administrative fines.
The petition alleged that many of these conditions are met in Illinois, and the findings in the EPA report largely agreed. Among the findings:
As a result, EPA is giving Illinois EPA until October 28, 2010, to propose corrections to its program. EPA has directed Illinois EPA to fulfill the most basic tasks of its delegated authority, such as:
The open secret of petitions to withdraw a state’s NPDES authority is that the likelihood of EPA doing so is minuscule. But, like a blasting air horn, they serve to startle to attention the otherwise humdrum, quotidian march of too many state agencies. EPA has neither the desire nor the resources to take over these state programs, and states have too much pride to let it happen. Nevertheless, petitions like this one for EPA takeover of state programs are popping up all over the country. They force EPA to take a long overdue and careful look at state permitting programs, which in turn requires states to make changes to their anemic programs—and therein lies the value. Sadly, EPA’s assessment of the Illinois CAFO program is unlikely to be unique. Its conclusions probably apply far beyond Illinois’ borders, as do its recommendations for improvements.