USDA rule exempting medium-sized factory farms from environmental scrutiny vacated

Swiss vote to ban factory farming
REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
  • Exemptions benefited medium-sized operations
  • Opposition groups said the rule failed to consider "massive" environmental impacts

(Reuters) - A federal judge on Tuesday vacated a rule that exempted medium-sized industrial livestock farms from undergoing environmental reviews before receiving government loans, after finding what she called severe problems with the rulemaking process.

U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly in Washington, D.C. said on Tuesday that a 2016 rule from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2016 Farm Service Agency establishing the exemptions was finalized with little to no public comment, or any indication the agency had conducted a comprehensive review of the consequences, in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

The USDA declined to comment Tuesday.

The decision means medium-sized industrial livestock farms must undergo environmental impact analyses before receiving loans from the agency, as was required before 2016.

The ruled had removed a requirement that the farm service agency analyze and consider potential environmental harms from activities funded by the government loans, which are used to finance a variety of projects including expanding or building new concentrated animal feeding operations.

A coalition of animal rights groups and farmers challenged the rule in 2018, saying the government sidestepped proper procedure and ignored evidence when it finalized the rule in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act and Administrative Procedure Act. They said the rulemaking failed to consider medium-sized livestock farms' “massive” contributions to climate change and harms to water and air quality.

Those types of livestock farms can house up to 700 dairy cows, 2,500 55-pound pigs or up to 125,000 chickens.

Daniel Waltz, an attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said the facilities can produce as much waste as a mid-sized city.

Waltz said environmental reviews will give communities the chance to push back against the industrial farms.

The case is Dakota Rural Action v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, No. 1:18-cv-02852.

For the challengers: David Muraskin and Jessica Culpepper of Public Justice; Cristina Stella and David Waltz of the Animal Legal Defense Fund; and Tarah Heinzen of Food & Water Watch

For the government: Krystal-Rose Perez and Sean Duffy of the U.S. Department of Justice

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.