Largest ever fine for water pollution goes to a CAFO—and it’s a horse track in New Orleans

A close up shot of horses at a race track. October 2020

iStock / webphotographeer

A close up shot of horses at a race track. October 2020

iStock / webphotographeer

When you think CAFO, you probably don’t think horse racing. And surely you don’t think food. But never fear: we’ll connect those dots for you.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last week announced the largest-ever fine brought against a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) for violating the Clean Water Act: $2,790,000 for discharging manure, urine, and untreated wastewater into New Orleans’s local sewer system more than 250 times between 2012 and 2018. 

When you think of a CAFO, what probably comes to mind is a massive, windowless facility where cows, hogs, or chickens are housed by the thousands in pens and stalls, and grown at rapid speed and maximum efficiency for food. There are around 20,000 of these so-called factory farms across the country, and often they’re run by operators under contract with big vertically integrated meatpackers like Cargill and Smithfield.

The EPA defines CAFOs as agricultural operations that house large numbers of farm animals—1,000 head of beef cattle, 10,000 hogs, or more than 82,000 egg-laying hens, for instance—but what distinguishes them from other large animal farms has more to do with animal management. These animals don’t graze in pastures or fields. They eat, poop, and die in confinement, on a single, small plot of land.

“This would have a significant impact where you have oyster and fishing industries.”

Though, you may be more familiar with who they tend to anger. For more than two decades, CAFOs have been the target of animal-rights activists, who say they’re cruel and inhumane. Small-business and independent-farm advocates say the costs incurred to build and update them imprison smaller farmers in debt, and accelerate industry consolidation. Environmentalists, meanwhile, say packing all that animal waste into a single space—no less than the equivalent of urine and feces from 16,000 people, says the Sierra Club—poses risks to human health and surrounding waterways.

And the way CAFO waste is managed is an ongoing environmental threat. On dairy and hog farms, it’s washed into open-air manure lagoons, then sprayed onto fields as fertilizer. If it’s incorrectly applied, or if heavy rains deluge the fields, it can run off into local rivers and streams and seep into groundwater. And lagoons are prone to leaks, especially during extreme weather. Farm scientists say it’s just too much poop in one place to be safe.

CAFOs may be emblematic of the high costs of Big Ag, but interestingly, the EPA, which regulates the operations, didn’t assess this record fine to a hog or dairy cow operation. It wasn’t an agricultural facility at all. Instead, the recipient was Fair Grounds Race Track, a thoroughbred race course and casino in New Orleans. 

By definition, horse tracks are CAFOs, too: they stable animals in confinement for at least 45 days a year, and don’t grow animal feed on-site. And you may be surprised to learn that they are fined by EPA more than any other kind of CAFO. According to our review of a public database, the agency has entered into an array of settlements, some of which included “consent decrees”—legal agreements that assess fines but don’t mandate an admission of guilt—with 13 CAFOs for Clean Water Act violations since 2001, five of which were for equine operations. 

“I can’t see anybody who’d want to go fishing in an area where five million pounds of horse waste is flowing in.”

That’s more than the agency has issued to dairies, egg farms, cattle operations, or hog farms, even though they likely outnumber horse tracks. (CAFO data is notoriously opaque.) And while it’s a little harder to see what horse racing has to do with our food, rest assured, we’ll connect the dots for you.

“This would have a significant impact where you have oyster and fishing industries,” said Tiong Aw, a public health microbiologist at Tulane University, of EPA’s settlement with the track. “Dumping manure contributes to the nitrogen in the lake, which creates harmful algal blooms that have a negative effect on oysters grown for human consumption, and for restoration.”

During racing season, which lasts about four months, EPA says Fair Grounds stabled as many as 1,800 horses at a time. Each of them was capable of producing around 55 pounds of manure per day, according to farm science estimates. Unlike the wet manure made by hogs and dairy cows, which festers in lagoons, the manure made by horses is comparatively hard, which means it can be stored in piles, and dumpstered away. 

But according to EPA, much of that waste was unlawfully washed down storm water drains and into the New Orleans municipal sewer system. (The agency said its settlement with Fair Grounds, which includes a consent decree, will divert 5 million pounds of manure from the system every year.) The manure made its way into the Mississippi River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico, where it joined a stream of nutrient-rich farm runoff from the Upper Midwest—animal poop, but also loads of synthetic crop fertilizers—that contributes to an excessive growth of algae in local waters. 

These algal blooms can force beach closures, which impact the state’s summer tourism economy. And the notorious hypoxic “dead zone,” as the biggest bloom is called, starves the Gulf of Mexico of oxygen, sending fish, shrimp, and crabs to deeper waters, and killing shellfish. 

And here’s what all that has to do with what we eat: The Gulf supplies 72 percent of America’s shrimp harvest, 66 percent of its oysters, and 16 percent of commercial fish. When those millions and millions of pounds of manure from horse tracks collide with streams of agricultural runoff, you get a tsunami’s worth of strain on our domestic seafood supply. 

“Personally, I can’t see anybody who’d want to go fishing in an area where five million pounds of horse waste is flowing in,” said Matt Rota, senior policy director at Healthy Gulf, a New Orleans-based environmental nonprofit. 

The Gulf supplies 72 percent of America’s shrimp harvest, 66 percent of its oysters, and 16 percent of commercial fish.

Churchill Downs, the parent company of Fair Grounds, and convener of the Kentucky Derby at its eponymous race track, did not respond to a request for comment, and did not clarify the amount of horse manure the track produced, or dumped into waterways. But according to EPA, that poop takes a circuitous path to the Gulf. 

The wastewater, which also includes urine, first entered the New Orleans “municipal separate storm sewer system,” which is a series of ditches and conveyances designed to move stormwater runoff into local water bodies. It then discharged into the London Avenue Canal, a local drainage system that DOJ said is used for recreational fishing. From there, it emptied out into Lake Pontchartrain, the salty estuary that’s a key link in the local oyster industry, and where fecal contamination spurs low oxygen zones that kill off shellfish. Eventually, the waste trickled out into the Gulf, said EPA.

EPA declined our request for an interview specific to this case, but said in a statement that Fair Grounds was located in a “heavily populated community” where pollution was a threat to human health and the environment. Fair: It is easier to notice a big-city horse track and wonder what it’s doing to your water, than it is to envision the circuitous path farm runoff takes through amber waves of grain and into a Mississippi River oyster bed.

The agency also didn’t say why Fair Grounds is being fined now, after at least six years’ worth of violations, or why race tracks appear to have been fined more frequently than farms, saying in a statement that it enforces regulations against “all manner of CAFO facilities that discharge to waters of the United States.” 

Rota thinks the track’s big-city presence does indeed have something to do with the fine. “I’m glad they’re being held accountable for all the pollution they’re putting in, but also, there are lots of CAFO issues around the country,” Rota said. “My guess is that race tracks are just a lot more public, and there are a lot more people who could be reporting violations.”

Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.