Talking Clean Water and Industrial Agriculture with Kelly Hunter Foster

Caption Photo courtesy of Rick Dove, Waterkeeper Alliance

An aerial view of a swine facility and waste lagoons in Eastern North Carolina.

Kelly Hunter Foster is senior attorney at Waterkeeper Alliance where she manages the organization's Clean Water Defense and National Pure Farms, Pure Waters campaigns, including Clean Water Act-related legal actions against the government and polluters.

Her background and experience with factory farming pollution issues has made her a vital part of Waterkeeper Alliance's work in North Carolina where 2,200 industrial hog operations have had a significant impact on African American, Latino and Native American communities in the eastern part of the state.

Prior to Waterkeeper Alliance, Kelly served in the Environmental Protection Unit (EPU) of the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office from 1996 to 2014 ; she was the EPU Chief from 2001 through 2010. Read on to learn how Kelly became involved in Waterkeeper's work, what she thinks can be done to hold agribusiness more accountable and what inspires her.

 

I think a good place to start is our food system's relationship with our water resources. Could you speak about that link and how food production impacts water quality?

Food production, including the production of crops for livestock, depends on the availability of vast quantities of clean water from our nation's surface waters and groundwater, but our food production systems are depleting and polluting waters across the country and these impacts are expected to significantly worsen in response to climate change. Nationally, agricultural production consumes more surface water and groundwater than all of the other public and industrial users in the US combined. Agriculture is responsible for "approximately 80 percent of the Nation's consumptive water use... and over 90 percent in many Western States," according to the US Department of Agriculture. Animal agriculture and crop production are also the leading causes of nutrient and pathogen pollution in surface waters and the primary sources of nitrate pollution in groundwater.

Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution has become a national crisis that is impacting drinking water supplies, fisheries and recreational waters across the country, including many waters of national importance such as Lake Erie, the Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, Florida's coastal waters, North Carolina's coastal waters and Washington's Puget Sound.

In addition to major environmental problems like toxic algal blooms, fish kills and contaminated drinking water supplies, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution can cause serious human health problems, such as neurological impacts from algal toxins, blue baby syndrome from nitrate in groundwater and reproductive impacts, developmental impacts and cancer from disinfection byproducts in treated drinking water. The failure to address this pollution has resulted in exponential increases in drinking water treatment costs, billions in pollution cleanup costs, $1 billion in annual losses to the tourism industry, millions in annual losses to the fish and shellfish industry, and devaluation of waterfront real estate. In Washington State alone, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution closed the razor clam fishery for part of 2016 resulting in an estimated $9.2 million in lost income.

Tell us about Waterkeeper's work in the US and around the world.

Waterkeeper Alliance is made up of over 300 Waterkeeper Organizations and Affiliates working to protect rivers, lakes and coastal waterways on 6 continents. Waterkeepers believe that citizens have the right to organize to protect their local waterways to ensure clean water for drinking, fishing and swimming. The movement started on the Hudson River in 1966 with a group of local fisherman that joined together and fought to clean up their river using citizen advocacy and the law. The grassroots model they developed began to spread across the world, and in 1999, Waterkeeper Alliance was formed to support all of these organizations. Waterkeeper Alliance currently has three campaigns to help facilitate support for the Waterkeepers and raise their issues to the national level, including Clean Water Defense; Pure Farms, Pure Waters and Clean and Safe Energy.

Waterkeepers are now working in 35 countries to protect clean water in more than 2.5 million square miles of rivers, streams and coastlines in the Americas, Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa, including the Himalayas, Bangladesh, Chile, Iraq, Kenya, Senegal and Togo. With so many Waterkeepers doing inspiring work around the world, it is difficult to give an adequate overview of everything they do. Their work ranges from utilizing their scientific knowledge to educate their communities to filing successful lawsuits to clean up pollution by multinational corporations.

When and how did you get involved in this work?

I first started working to address water, air and land pollution when I joined the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office in 1996 and started doing administrative, civil and criminal enforcement of environmental laws. I stayed in the AG's Office for roughly 14 years and became the Chief of the Environmental Protection Unit in 2001. We represented environmental agencies, and worked to address diverse sources of pollution across the state such as Superfund sites, hazardous waste sites, nuclear fuel cycle facilities, municipal wastewater treatment facilities, refineries and CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations).

Through this work, I saw communities destroyed and children harmed by severe unaddressed pollution and I observed the powerful forces that allow pollution to continue despite laws to the contrary. I also learned that it would not stop unless people were empowered and willing to stand up and enforce the law in the public interest without regard to pressure, threats or politics. I had the honor of working for an AG who allowed me to enforce the law and protect Oklahomans for fourteen years. I went to work at Waterkeeper Alliance in December of 2010, just before the AG I worked for left office, because it was clear to me that the organization was committed to these same principles, including holding the government accountable when it fails in its obligation to enforce environmental laws and protect the public interest. I have stayed at Waterkeeper Alliance because I see how this commitment is being implemented by hundreds of brave people to protect waterways, and the communities and people that depend upon them, around the world. And I get to help.

Hunter and her son.Kelly Hunter Foster and her son.

There is often an environmental justice piece to Waterkeeper's work. Please explain.

Waterkeeper works in communities to address water pollution. Pollution often disproportionately impacts minority, low-income, tribal and other vulnerable communities resulting in more adverse health and environmental consequences. The reasons for this reality are complex. For example, corporations may target these communities because they lack the political power and financial resources to fight back, laws may be designed to push industry into these communities, or regulatory enforcement may be more lax in these areas due to political pressure or lack of political power in the community.

Eastern North Carolina has the highest concentration of swine CAFOs in the world. There are more than 2,000 swine CAFOs storing enormous volumes of waste in open-air pits and spraying this waste onto the land. Numerous scientific studies have documented serious health impacts from living near CAFOs in North Carolina, such as asthma and other respiratory disorders, exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), drinking water contaminated with nitrates, and emissions of hazardous gasses causing coughing, nausea, headaches, burning eyes and psychological effects. Across the state, CAFOs are disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities of color.

In September of 2014, North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, and Waterkeeper Alliance, represented by Earthjustice and the UNC Center For Civil Rights, filed a federal civil rights complaint against the NC Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act for issuing permits without adequate protections for communities living next to these facilities. On January 12, 2017, the US EPA External Civil Rights Compliance Office wrote to the NCDEQ and expressed "deep concern" that the State's failure to adequately regulate more than 2,000 industrial hog operations has a disparate, discriminatory impact on African American, Latino and Native American communities in eastern North Carolina, and urged NCDEQ to take immediate steps to address the discriminatory impacts of the State's swine waste management system.

What can be done to hold agribusiness more accountable and make the food system more sustainable?

Industrialized beef, dairy, swine and poultry CAFOs - which produce roughly 1.1 billion tons of animal waste annually - are one of the largest unaddressed sources of nutrient and pathogen pollution in the United States. CAFOs are designed as point sources that require permits under the Clean Water Act (CWA), but despite the overwhelming amount of evidence documenting pollution from these facilities, only 33 percent of the largest CAFOs have CWA permits. As a starting point, enforcing the requirement that CAFOs obtain CWA permits would force the industry to start managing their waste in a more environmentally sound manner. This would require the states and EPA to stop engaging in the legal fiction that CAFOs are not discharging, and to stop treating CAFO discharges as nonpoint source pollution exempt from the CWA.

Secondly, CAFOs must be required to manage their waste in a manner that actually prevents discharges of nitrogen, phosphorus and pathogens into surface water and groundwater. This encompasses many changes, but chief among them is putting an end to land application of waste in excess of crop needs for phosphorus. The failure to do so is a key contributor to our nation's nutrient pollution problem, and limiting application to actual crop needs would force the agribusiness corporations to either reduce production or find a solution to the excessive waste they generate in geographically concentrated areas.

Additionally, the large, and often multinational, corporations that contract with growers to operate CAFOs must be held accountable for dealing with the waste generated at these facilities because contract growers do not have the resources and power to find a solution to problems created by the corporation's business model. These actions will not address all of the issues, but represent the bare minimum first steps toward addressing the industry's impact on water quality.

What is your take on the current US regulatory environment?

Steve Bannon recently stated that the Trump Administration intends to deconstruct the administrative state, and that many of the Cabinet nominees "were selected for a reason, and that is deconstruction." I think that the meaning of this is clear, but I also think that because it is so hard to fathom, it is worth looking at the definition of "deconstruct" and taking a look at a few of the actions the administration has taken in the short time it has been in place.

Since Bannon is not using the term in the literary sense, according to Merriam-Websters, deconstruct should be taken to mean "demolish" or "destroy." So far, their actions are consistent with that mission - eliminating the rule that protected drinking water from coal mining; directing the EPA and the Army Corps to withdraw and revise the "Clean Water Rule"; setting up "regulatory reform officers" and "task forces" within the agencies to "slash" regulations; inexplicably directing agencies to eliminate two regulations for every new one they adopt; and proposing to slash EPA's budget by $2 billion, including funding for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico, San Francisco Bay and Puget Sound. They are also proposing to eliminate environmental justice grants and beach testing for bacteria, and severely reduce funding for climate change, hazardous waste cleanups, drinking water grants to states, underground waste injection and a myriad of other key regulatory programs. Severe reductions in grants to the states will further limit the state's already diminished capacity to fill the resulting void.

What are some specific choices people can make when it comes to their food that factor in protecting the country's water resources and waterways?

People can look into the source of their food and evaluate whether the producer is employing practices that are protective of water quality. This can be challenging, especially given that corporate agribusiness is increasing efforts to label their products in a manner that makes them seem sustainable, such as "natural" or "locally grown" when they are actually produced in the industrial-scale CAFOs. There are guides, like Animal Welfare Approved, that help people make good choices in purchasing, and I often rely on these myself when making food choices. You can also find out quite a bit by doing a quick Google search. I personally try to buy as much food as I can from small independent local producers.

What's one thing about industrial agriculture you wish more people knew?

That is a tough question because I think the problem with industrial agriculture only emerges when you start to see the big picture, which includes understanding the nature and motives of the corporations on an international scale. My impression is that most people don't know what industrial agriculture is or how it impacts so many aspects of our lives. Agribusiness corporations have convinced a lot of people that the way we produce our food is universally good for farmers and our country, and they have been very effective in labelling anyone that identifies how that isn't universally true as anti-farmer. I have never met anyone that is anti-farmer, yet that theme has been so effective in preventing people from hearing the voices of those harmed by the industry, including farmers, and those who are concerned about how corporate control of our food supply and their drive for profit impacts our lives and our democracy. Perhaps, as a start, I wish more people knew why it is really important to know where your food comes from.

What do you find to be your biggest source of inspiration from day-to-day?

I am inspired by all of the people I get to work with on a daily basis and Waterkeepers working around the world. Waterkeepers are tough, smart and dedicated people that selflessly work to protect their communities and waterways. We have an annual conference each year where they all come together to learn from and inspire one another. When I first came to Waterkeeper Alliance, I heard that attending the conference provided enough inspiration to last the entire year and it actually does. But it is supplemented constantly throughout the year by reports of new victories and heroic efforts taking place across the world.

 

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