Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bush’s Final Stinking Act

In the waning hours of its lame duck presidency, the Bush Administration continued its deregulation of industry with a new ruling granting immunity to feedlot operators. Last week the Environmental Protection Agency made it easier for Confined Animal Feeding Operations, a.k.a. CAFOs—factory “farms” with 1,000 animals or more—to pollute the nation’s air and waterways with hog, chicken, and cow feces. As if a global economic meltdown weren’t enough, the Bush Administration is now doing what it can to set up a meltdown in the food system.

The EPA’s recent ruling allows the biggest, grisliest factory farms to “self certify” that they are not discharging waste into U.S. waterways. A subsequent ruling also exempts CAFOs from reporting gaseous pollutants like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide to the federal government. Anyone familiar with CAFOs can tell you that these massive industrial farms perpetrate some of the biggest pollution crimes in the country.

Contempt for governance has been the hallmark of the Bush/Cheney Administration, and this latest ruling is no exception. EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Benjamin H. Grumbles spun the new rules as “a strong national standard for pollution prevention.”

But not everyone in Washington was buying it. Congressman Albert R. Wynn—chairman of the House subcommittee on environment and hazardous materials—labeled the changing regulations as a "gift from the Bush administration to big corporate animal feeding operations that denies the public of knowledge that serious contaminants are in the air."

We’ve witnessed how well Wall Street self-regulated over the last decade. How can we possibly trust operations with 1 million chickens or 10,000 hogs or 15,000 dairy cattle and waste volumes that approach mid-sized cities (but without sewage treatment plants) to tell us the truth about their manure emissions?

In reality, the EPA’s new “clean water rule” is code for “fecal matter in your drinking water.” And this is not the quaint manure of your grandparents’ generation. Modern CAFO manure is known to harbor all kinds of nasty substances, including arsenic, antibiotic medicines, hormones, heavy metals, and dioxins.

Just this summer, the town of Thief River Falls, Minnesota advised residents to evacuate because hydrogen sulfide emissions from a nearby dairy operation reached 200 times the standard allowed by state law. According to one report, the nauseous fumes were so pervasive, residents were literally puking in their driveways.

One has to wonder, what have we done to deserve this? How can our public officials play so fast and loose with our health? But wait a minute, it’s been this way for at least the past eight years. Wasn’t one of the Bush Administration’s first acts of environmental protection to raise the levels on how much arsenic is acceptable in drinking water?

According to Martha Noble, an attorney with the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in Washington D.C., the recent CAFO self-regulation rulings are the final act of “revolving door politics” in an out-going administration. Industry representatives that the Bush Administration put into positions of power are now returning to the private sector. As part of the pre-interview process, they are setting in place as many industry-friendly rules and policies as possible. An EPA staffed with industry hacks ensured that the corporate agenda would be taken care of at the public’s expense.

Noble fears that the recent CAFO rulings will not be easily undone. Under the Congressional Rule Act, Congress has 60 service days to review and amend this final rule. But it’s a cumbersome process. And these are just a few among many last minute exemptions to pave the way for destructive enterprises like oil and gas exploration, coal power production, and uranium mining. (For the full list, visit ProPublica’s webpage tracking all of the midnight rule changes.)

One of George W. Bush parting gifts to all Americans is a compromised food safety system. And, like the CAFO industry it protects, it will leave a long, lingering stench.

To learn about the “revolving door” politics of the EPA and USDA—in more juicy detail—come back to read part II of this posting.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

News: Secretary of Food

It's hard not to notice that--among all the reports of Obama's appointments and potential appointments--headline news of the next Secretary of Agriculture has been conspicuously absent. But behind the scenes, the president-elect's transition team has been doing its agricultural homework. Last week Dan participated in a conference call with the transition team and a group of food activists including Michael Pollan and Alice Waters.

Dan is also among the original signers of a petition circulating to advocate for a progressive-minded Secretary of Agriculture appointment. If you haven’t yet, please visit the site, read the message, and consider signing the petition. The next Secretary could play a very big role in the future of food and agriculture in our country, not to mention health, climate change, energy, and so many more issues that are all tied together.


When you’re done, read the recent New York Times column in which Nicholas Kristof advocates for a renamed "Secretary of Food" position.