Draft EPA Deal Gives Factory Farms a Pass on Air Pollution

By J.R. Pegg

September 29, 2003 (ENS) - Environmentalists say the Bush administration intends to broker a deal to exempt the nation's largest factory farms from violations of the Clean Air Act and the Superfund hazardous waste law. According to a draft of the amnesty deal released last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would grant a commitment not to sue a concentrated animal farm operation (CAFO) for violations of either law in exchange for a $500 penalty and $2,500 fee to fund an air pollution monitoring study.

"The draft plan has loopholes you could drive cattle through," said Joe Rudek, senior scientist with Environmental Defense and a member of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Air Quality Task Force. "It lets polluters off the hook, sets no firm deadlines and contains no firm requirements for the livestock industry to clean up its pollution."

The proposed deal resolves the liability for alleged violations of both laws, does not commit CAFOs to reduce pollution and allows them to propose which sites are monitored for the study.

Bush administration officials say the document, which was leaked to the environmental groups, is only a draft. But critics say it is further evidence of an administration determined to help industry groups avoid compliance with the nation's environmental laws. waste

The aerial spraying of liquid animal wastes is of great concern to environmentalists and public health advocates. (Photo by Rick Dove courtesy Factory Farm Project)
"Be it Vice President Cheney's Energy Task Force or this back-room deal for the meat and milk industries, the Bush administration continues to let polluters write the rules while leaving the public out of the process," said Ken Midkiff, director of the Sierra Club's Factory Farm program.

Armed with the draft of the amnesty deal, Midkiff's organization - along with the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment - have filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) demanding that the Bush administration release information about its closed negotiations with CAFO representatives.

In May, environmental groups obtained an industry letter documenting negotiations with the Bush administration over the draft of the safe harbor agreement and filed a FOIA request for documents about industry meetings. That request was denied the administration, which said "there were no draft or underlying records relating to the topics described above at any state of development."

The exemptions proposed in the draft agreement "would put thousands of communities at risk," said Brent Newell of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment. "Instead of protecting those communities, the Bush administration is working to protect polluters from the laws that safeguard the public welfare."

It would be hard to argue that CAFOs do not present serious environmental and public health concerns - they produce some 220 billion gallons of liquefied animal waste a year.

These operations have emerged as the dominant force in the modern production of agricultural livestock over the past two decades - some of the largest facilities have capacities in excess of one million animals. cattle

Large factory farms are the dominant force in U.S. agriculture and the fastest growing type of agricultural operation worldwide. (Photo courtesy Factory Farm Project)

This liquefied waste is stored in massive open air lagoons or applied on land. But it often runs off into surface water, a practice that has contaminated drinking water supplies, killed fish and spread disease.

Environmentalists filed suit in March over a Bush administration proposal in December 2002 that seeks to limit water pollution from CAFOs. Critics say that proposal gives the industry free reign to discharge animal waste into the nation's waters without fear of penalty or accountability.

The harsh odors of CAFO operations have been well documented, but there is some evidence that the health impacts of CAFO air pollution can also be severe - a 1999 University of North Carolina study, for example, found that people living near large hog farms suffer significantly higher levels of upper respiratory ailments.

The high volume of animal wastes produced by CAFOs result in large amounts of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, both of which are on the priority list of hazardous substances created under the Superfund law - also known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.

This list consists of the substances most commonly found at Superfund sites and which are determined to pose the most significant threat to human health due. Ammonia and hydrogen sulfides have been shown to cause respiratory ailments.

Dust from feed and animal waste is considered particulate matter - a criteria pollutant under the Clean Air Act that is linked with respiratory ailments and is a major contributor to haze. waste

Air pollution wafts up from massive open air waste storage pools, often referred to as lagoons. (Photo by K. Hudson courtesy Factory Farm Project)

Critics of CAFO regulations believe the operations should be treated as stationary air pollution sources under the Clean Air Act prohibited from using open air manure lagoons and from the aerial spraying of liquid wastes. In addition, environmentalists and public health advocates want air pollution control agencies to set standards for all compounds released into the air by CAFOs.

But the industry is loathe to embrace any mandatory standards and believes more information about CAFO air emissions are needed.

There is the need for more monitoring data on CAFO air emissions, agrees Environmental Defense's Rudek, and a voluntary program "has some merits."

"Industry should pay to monitor its air pollution and collect data that document the full impact of operations on air quality," he said. "But EPA clearly has the authority to require monitoring on [CAFOs] and relinquishes far too much control over monitoring in this voluntary program."

This draft proposal is further evidence that the administration is far too close to the industries it is tasked with regulating, adds Barclay Rogers, an associate attorney with the Sierra Club.

A leaked copy of the industry's proposal for regulation and monitoring of CAFO air emissions is identical in policy to what the EPA's draft proposal outlines, Rogers said.

All the Bush administration did, Rogers told ENS, is "put meat on the bones of the industry's request."

The EPA draft settlement and the industry's proposal can be found here.