‘Ignorant of critical issues’: NDEE to hear concerns about its proposed permit for large cattle operations

Sept. 28, 2022, 5 p.m. ·

Cows stand in a feedlot, some looking at the camera, with green fields in the background.
Cows stand in a feedlot near West Point, Nebraska. (Photo courtesy of Nutrient Advisors)

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A new general permit will set requirements for large cattle operations like feedyards for five years, beginning April 1, 2023. But first, the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy will get input on a draft of the permit in a public hearing on Thursday, Sept. 29.

The permit applies to concentrated animal feeding operations with at least 1,000 cattle. The draft requires the CAFOs to have a waste facility that can hold wastewater including runoff in the case of a storm with rainfall that would statistically occur once in 25 years.

Jonathan Leo, an Omaha resident and environmental attorney, is concerned those requirements won’t properly prevent manure, chemicals and pathogens from seeping into groundwater.

In particular, Leo said the permit doesn’t go far enough to account for intense rains and flooding, which can trigger run off and have become more common with climate change.

“It’s so transparently ignorant of critical issues, since now 500-year rains are happening more frequently,” he said. “It seems to me that this draft permit was written by an agency that really isn't paying much attention to the realities on the ground.”

An NDEE spokesperson said the department inspects CAFOs on a regular schedule to ensure compliance with pollutant discharge, construction and operating permits. NDEE also reviews nutrient management plans, groundwater conditions and engineering plans, according to a statement.

NDEE said it is still in the process of collecting comments for the permit and will review and respond to all feedback.

"If responses to those comments necessitate changes to general permit NEG023000, then the permit will be publicly noticed a second time," the statement said.

Ashlen Busick is with the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project. She said she’s worried about how the permit does not differentiate between a cattle operation with 1,000 cows from an operation with tens of thousands of animals.

“It treats mega cattle operations of … 80,000 heads the same as it's treating 1,000-head operations,” Busick said. “These mega facilities have an exponentially harmful impact on neighboring communities. So they need to have much stronger oversight to protect Nebraska’s air and water.”

Dundy county’s board of commissioners recently approved a conditional permit for what would be the state’s largest feedlot, moving the Canadian company Blackshirt Feeders closer to opening a 100,000-head feedlot in southwest Nebraska.

Busick said state authorities need to adjust their regulations to monitor operations of that size.

“Regulation for these massive operations need to adapt more quickly and proactively to keep up with the extreme scale and nuances of these facilities,” she said. “Otherwise the powerful ag lobby is writing the rules and agencies are just falling in line.”