Formica, the pork industry lawyer, said the EPA can request information during farm inspections or if it has a reason to suspect a specific farm is polluting.
But there are hundreds of thousands of livestock farms nationally and not nearly enough federal or state inspectors to regularly check them all. Environmentalists said if basic information was reported to the EPA, it could help target inspections. For example, if a farmer didn't appear to have enough land to handle the amount of waste his animals generated, that could raise a red flag.
The agency suffered another setback in 2008, when a federal court struck down an EPA rule requiring all livestock operations over a certain size to get a Clean Water Act permit, which would have answered many questions. The court said farms aren't like factories or wastewater treatment plants, which are designed to discharge some contamination into waterways, so they shouldn't have to get a permit unless they pollute.
"The real problem is how (the EPA) can know" whether a farm has polluted, said Jon Devine, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, another one of the organizations that sued the EPA. "It's a catch-me-if-you-can scenario."
The EPA has used airplanes to fly over livestock operations to look for manure runoff. The agency said such surveillance helped minimize costs and the number of on-site inspections, in part by focusing on areas with many feedlots or watersheds tainted by animal waste.
But ranchers in some areas were outraged when they heard about the program earlier this year, and Republican lawmakers have since introduced a bill in the U.S. House to prohibit the EPA from using flyovers to enforce the Clean Water Act unless the agency has written voluntary consent, provides public notice or obtains a court order.
Although farmers are supposed to report runoff into waterways, residents' complaints or dead fish are usually the first sign of problems, said Bruce Yurdin, a manager in the Illinois EPA's bureau of water who said his department sees one or two manure spills a month.
In 2009, an estimated 200,000 gallons of manure spilled from a holding pond at an eastern Illinois hog farm into a nearby creek, killing more than 110,000 fish over 19 miles. The farm agreed last year to pay more than $81,000 in fines to the state to settle the case.
But to address such problems, "you have to find them," Yurdin said. He estimated there are 3,500 CAFOs in Illinois, though his department isn't sure, and that the state inspects about 200 per year.
Devine said it all adds up to a messy situation.
"EPA passed up an efficient, uniform, and accurate mechanism for obtaining needed information ... and opted instead for a messy, time-consuming, and surely incomplete process," he said.
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