07/01/2013 11:27 am ET Updated Aug 31, 2013

The Hypocrisy of a Cockroach Congress and CAFO Pollution Control

Congress's approval rating recently hit an all-time low of 9 percent. Americans approve of Congress almost as much as they like cockroaches (roaches actually do better in polls than Congress by a couple of points). In stark contrast, the Environmental Protection Agency enjoys a 70 percent approval rating; the Agency is almost on par with dogs, with 74 percent of adult Americans claiming to like human's best friend "a lot." These kinds of statistics leave you wondering how any member of a Cockroach Congress could possibly feel entitled to attack the environmental watchdog agency for trying to protect our nation's watersheds and airways. But leave it to Congress!

On June 4, a group of 24 Senators -- both Democrats and Republicans -- sent a letter to EPA to "express concern" and demand answers about the agency's recent disclosure of data about the nation's meat production facilities, also know as CAFOs, to a group of environmental organizations who filed Freedom of Information Act requests. On June 21, another group of the "nine percenters" sent a letter demanding that the Agency refrain from taking part in an environmental law conference where one of the panels offered was about citizens' ability to collect data concerning polluters so they could protect our rivers and lakes from the ongoing degradation that plagues our waterways without having to rely on government.

The irony of the Senate's anti-information letter writing campaign is that we are in the midst of the NSA information gathering scandal, in which Congress supported and enacted secret laws to provide for the mining and review of personal phone and internet records of millions of innocent Americans. Now, these same legislators are denouncing and trying to stop the gathering of information about the highest source of pollution in the nation -- industrial agriculture -- by nonprofit organizations who work to protect the health and safety of all our communities.

Congressional support of the NSA action is widespread. Even liberals like Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat from California, defends the NSA information-gathering exercises as necessary for "protecting America" from terrorism. So what about "protecting America" from pollution? Studies indicate that pollution is responsible for 40 percent of deaths worldwide. Air, water and land pollution in the United States puts 76,000 people in the hospital each year and accounts for about 5,000 deaths. Viruses, cancers, bacterial infections and respiratory illnesses all thrive in polluted environments and pollution is killing and injuring more Americans, on American soil, and in our water and airways, each year than terrorism ever has.

The largest source of pollution in the country -- our industrialized agricultural systems, including CAFOs -- also happens to be the most under-regulated. Governmental and independent researchers have fully documented the horrendous impacts CAFOs are having on our surface and groundwater and airways in countless studies. A 2008 Union of Concerned Scientists report estimates that the price to clean up the contamination under hog and dairy CAFOs in the country would be over $4 billion dollars, while the United States Department of Agriculture has put the cost to simply move the manure around to avoid over application on our lands would exceed a billion dollars a year. But regulation, clean-up and application of manure in agronomic amounts isn't in the cards. Instead, CAFO's continue to poison our communities with excess nutrient pollution that kills waterways and an overuse of antibiotics that kills humans with virtual immunity.

When Congress enacted the Clean Water Act back in 1972, in a moment of foresight rarely repeated, it "deputized" citizens, empowering us all to bring our own CWA lawsuits to protect our natural resources and communities. It's a citizen enforcement approach that has produced proven, beneficial results throughout the 40-year history of the Act. So while the government may be the ones who get to enforce our homeland security laws and Congress has given the NSA the right to collect all the private citizen information it needs, or doesn't need, to protect our towns and cities from terror attacks, we all get to enforce our environmental laws. Yet, according to the many members of Congress who have been berating EPA for complying with the FOIA request, U.S. citizens apparently don't have the right to collect information needed to save their waterways and communities from all the public health and environmental ills of the CAFO industry.

Some of these members of Congress claim that their problem with EPA's information release was that it contained "personal" information about CAFO operators -- phone numbers and addresses. That excuse ignores the fact that these factory farms are home businesses, where owners have purposefully chosen to blur the line between home and business. Business owners who opt to conduct their business from their homes, whether it's childcare or CAFOs, shouldn't be allowed to hide behind the shield of privacy to continue with practices that harm surrounding communities.

Congress's latest attack on EPA smacks of the kind of hypocrisy that we've unfortunately come to expect from our elected legislators; it's this two-faced behavior that may explain the general disdain Americans hold for our elected representatives. As long as members of Congress continue to form their positions based on which way the special interest winds are blowing on any given day, they stand a good chance of breaking the 9 percent record one day soon. Then we'll have to find something even less popular than cockroaches to compare them to.