Confined feeding operations (CFOs) are enclosed areas where operators confine livestock for the purpose of growing, finishing or breeding them. The Agricultural Operation Practices Act and its regulations set out legislative requirements for CFOs to operate in an environmentally sustainable way. Alberta has about 2,000 CFOs.
The Natural Resources Conservation Board assumed responsibility for administering the Act in 2002. Before 2002, municipalities regulated CFOs under municipal requirements. Over half of Alberta’s CFOs were built before 2002. These CFOs are deemed to have a permit under the Act and do not have to upgrade their facilities to meet its requirements unless the facility poses a risk to the environment, as determined by NRCB.
NRCB enforces CFOs’ compliance with the Act through permitting and compliance monitoring processes. NRCB follows different processes for managing groundwater2 and surface water risks. While NRCB evaluates both groundwater and surface water risks before allowing new and expanding CFOs to operate, its compliance monitoring of existing CFOs has focused on groundwater risk. NRCB relies primarily on complaints to identify surface water risks.
What we examined
We followed up on recommendations from our previous audits of NRCB’s monitoring of CFOs. In 2004, we recommended that NRCB rank its compliance and enforcement activities based on environmental risk, and manage odour and nuisance complaints more efficiently. In our 2007 follow-up audit, we concluded that NRCB had implemented the odour and nuisance complaints part of the recommendation. We repeated the compliance and enforcement part of the recommendation.
In our 2011 follow-up, we concluded that NRCB had made significant progress with implementing the recommendation but still needed to take additional steps to fully implement it. We also found that NRCB had interpreted our 2004 recommendation (repeated in 2007) as being solely for groundwater. In fact, we had intended this recommendation to cover both groundwater and surface water. Therefore, we made a new recommendation that NRCB should assess whether its current compliance approach is adequate in proactively managing surface water risks.
What we found
NRCB made satisfactory progress but has not fully implemented this recommendation. We found that NRCB established a risk-based approach to monitoring conditions at CFOs that pose a higher risk to groundwater. However, NRCB had not documented its internal guidelines or required procedures for leak detection and water well monitoring programs. As a result, NRCB’s monitoring activities were not always timely and key actions and decisions were not always documented.
After our audit, NRCB issued an internal directive—which took effect in May 2013—that describes its requirements for the timing and documentation of actions staff take to monitor groundwater and respond to complaints. We were unable to test the implementation of the directive or the effectiveness of NRCB’s processes to monitor internal compliance because we completed our audit before the directive went into effect.
NRCB made satisfactory progress but has not fully implemented this recommendation. We found that NRCB has adequate procedures to ensure operators build new facilities, and expand or modify existing facilities, in a manner that does not pose a risk to surface water. After our audit, NRCB completed an action plan for how it will collect and analyze surface water data, to assess whether its current surface water approach is appropriate. We were unable to test the implementation of the plan because the completion of the first milestone—review and analysis of collected surface water data—is scheduled forthe spring of 2014.
What remains to be done
To fully implement the recommendations, NRCB needs to do the following:
Groundwater Implement a process to effectively monitor internal compliance with NRCB’s:
- policy for risk-based compliance
- directive for leak detection, water well reporting and risk-based compliance programs, and for responding to complaints
Demonstrate reasonable progress in implementing its surface water plan by evaluating the collected data and assessing whether its current surface water approach is working.
Implement a process to effectively monitor internal compliance with its data collection requirements in the surface water plan.
Why this is important to Albertans
Livestock manure can contaminate groundwater and surface water. The Agricultural Operation Practices Act sets out standards for CFOs to operate in an environmentally sound manner. NRCB is responsible for monitoring and enforcing CFO operators’ compliance with the Act, to ensure they do not harm theenvironment.