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Food Integrity Campaign Blog

The Role of Whistleblowers in Mitigating Industrial Agriculture’s Impact on Water

Food Integrity Campaign | March 16, 2023

Pollution from our industrial agricultural system is wreaking havoc on the natural environment. The way we produce most of our food today, including food processing and distribution, has an impact on the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the soil we depend on. In this blog, we’ll look at how our food system impacts the quality of our water and how whistleblowers can play a critical role in transforming our broken food system by exposing wrongdoing and demanding accountability.

Water Pollution from Industrial CAFOs

Concentrated Animal Feed Operations (CAFOs) are enclosed agricultural meat, dairy, or egg facilities where animals are kept, watered, and fed, as opposed to being left on pasture. This enables thousands of animals to be housed in a small amount of space. Not surprisingly, CAFO’s produce more manure than nearby land can absorb. For example, a single large CAFO that houses hogs or dairy cows can produce millions of gallons of manure a year. When the animal waste is over-applied to nearby fields, this liquid manure can become a major source of ground and surface water contamination. Residents living close to industrial-scale farms are at risk of having poisoned streams and rivers as well as contaminated well water. Additionally, industrial livestock farm pollution can lead to the spread of waterborne illnesses and the emergence of toxic algal blooms.

Whistleblowers and scientists have continuously raised concerns about the risks of weather events like hurricanes to cause flooding of stored animal waste, creating major public health disasters. The spills that occur can cause complications for private wells along with municipal and county water systems.

CAFO pollution threatens the safety of water and there is a clear lack of regulatory oversight. Making matters worse, there is no real way to account for how many CAFO’s there are in operation and no systematic data collection.

Water Pollution from Livestock Processing

Pollution in our waterways is coming from more than just on-farm production. Wastewater discharge from slaughterhouses and rendering plants have made their way to our streams and rivers. In fact, slaughterhouses are the top emitting industry of phosphorus, a mineral that can asphyxiate fish by triggering explosive growth of algae and aquatic plants in water. They are also huge emitters of nitrogen, which can have a similar impact.

Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA is responsible for regulating wastewater discharge from slaughter plants. Communities have spoken up about the discharges that have dirtied their water and environment and have demanded more regulatory action. According to the EPA, just 300 of the nation’s 7,000 meat and poultry slaughter and rendering plants are covered by existing water discharge standards, which apply to plants over a certain size that discharge directly into streams, lakes or oceans. After a lawsuit from environmental groups, the EPA recently announced they would toughen their water pollution rules for slaughterhouses for the first time in 20 years.

Water Pollution from Crop Farming

Intensive agriculture of both animals and crops impacts the quality of our environment. Large-scale farms, especially those using monocropping practices, and growing commodities such as corn, soybeans and wheat enhance crop yields by utilizing large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides. When these chemicals and nutrients are overapplied or not applied at the right time they won’t be absorbed by the plants. This excess nitrogen and phosphorus can be washed from farm fields and into waterways during rain events and when snow melts. It can also leach through the soil and into groundwater over time.

Protections for Water Whistleblowers

The choices we make as a society in terms of how our food system operates impact the quality of our environment, in particular the quality of water. Whistleblowers can play an important role in protecting this shared resource. Truth tellers can expose the wrongdoing of entities, businesses and institutions that refuse to play by the rules.

EPA has the authority to address water pollution and these laws include whistleblower protections. The good news is that there are whistleblower protections for truth-tellers who disclose potential threats to water, but the bad news is that many of these protections only have a 30-day statute of limitations. This means would-be whistleblowers must act swiftly to preserve their rights.

Below are some relevant laws impacting water that include whistleblower protections:

  • The Federal Water Pollution Control Act or “Clean Water Act”:
    • This law prohibits the release of hazardous levels of pollution into any waters that constitute a natural habitat for living things. An employee who reports any misrepresentations or noncompliance by the employer is protected. Additionally, “authorized representatives of employees,” which might include union officials, unions, or attorneys authorized to represent employees, may be protected as well.
    • The Clean Water Act prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for engaging in protected activities pertaining to alleged violations of pollutants being discharged into navigable waters from various point sources. Coverage extends to all private sector, state and municipal employees, and to employees of Indian tribes in the United States.
  • The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA): 
    • This law protects public health by regulating the nation’s public drinking water supply. The EPA and other federal agencies monitor the drinking water from both above-ground and underground sources. Animal wastes, pesticides and runoff have the potential to contaminate rural and urban drinking supplies. The levels of contamination can very month to month and season by season.
    • The SDWA prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for engaging in protected activities pertaining to alleged violations of actual or potential drinking water from sources designed for consumption. Coverage extends to all private sector, federal, state and municipal employees, and to employees of Indian Tribes in the United States.



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