EPA deal allows factory farms to avoid air laws

WASHINGTON, DC, January 25, 2005 (ENS): The Bush administration has offered factory farms immunity from some federal clean air regulations in exchange for allowing the federal government to monitor their air pollution.

Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection say the deal will make it easier to finalize air regulations for concentrated animal farm operations (CAFOs) and to ensure compliance with current regulations, but will not result in immediate emission reductions.

"This agreement is a huge step forward," said Thomas Skinner, EPA’s acting assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance. "It will allow us to reach the largest number of animal feeding operations in the shortest period of time and ensure that they comply with applicable clean air requirements."

The offer, announced Friday, is the agency’s response to a 2002 report by the National Academy of Sciences that called for an improved method for estimating emission from large scale livestock and poultry farms.

These facilities have emerged in the past two decades as the dominant force in meat production, but there are serious environmental and public health concerns over operations with capacities often in excess of one million animals.

CAFOs produce large amounts of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, both of which have been linked with respiratory ailments and are on the priority list of hazardous substances created under the Superfund law.

In addition, feed and manure dust are considered particulate matter – a criteria pollutant under the Clean Air Act that is linked with respiratory ailments and is a main source of haze.

But the EPA says it needs more data on farm air emissions to determine violations of existing regulations and to develop emission standards specific to the industry.

Operators participating in the agreement will pay a civil penalty of between $200 and $100,000, based on the size and number of farms in their operation – that fee grants them immunity from past and present Superfund, Clean Air Act and Community to Know Act violations, as well as violations that may occur while the EPA is finalizing regulations over the next several years.

Participants will also pay $2,500 into a fund that will cover the cost of the two year emissions monitoring program.

Officials say once regulations have been established, operators will be required to apply for all applicable air permits, install all needed controls, implement all required practices, and otherwise come into full compliance.

Some 4,000 farms – mostly hog and chicken producers – are expected to participate, according to the EPA, with about 30 of those farms set for monitoring.

The National Pork Producers Council (NPCC) praised the offer and said the monitoring would provide the “sound scientific data” needed to reduce emissions from farms.

“This has been a long, exhaustive and costly endeavor that NPPC has led on behalf of America’s pork producers for the past three years,” said Dave Roper, chairman of NPPC’s Environment Committee and an Idaho pork producer. “I urge all pork producers to seriously consider signing the consent agreement.”

But the close cooperation between industry and the EPA has alarmed environmentalists, who believe the agreement is a backroom, sweetheart deal that delays cleanup and enforcement of harmful air emissions from factory farms.

"EPA's giveaway to the livestock industry is troubling to those downwind of factory farms and sends the wrong message to other polluting industries," said Joe Rudek, senior scientist with Environmental Defense.

Rudek notes that although any producer that signs up would receive a waiver from enforcement, emissions from only a small number of farms would actually be monitored.

"EPA clearly has the authority to require monitoring of air emissions and relinquishes far too much of its control in this voluntary program,” Rudek said. “Industry should pay to monitor its pollution, and it should also be required to collect data that document the full impact of emissions on air quality, rather than making the limited measurements called for in EPA's plan.”

The impacts of CAFO air pollution can be severe – a 1999 University of North Carolina study, for example, found that people living near large hog farms suffer high levels of upper respiratory ailments.

And a study published last month by researchers at Johns Hopkins raised concerns that people could be exposed to antibiotic resistant bacteria from breathing the air from concentrated swine feeding facilities.

Researchers detected bacteria resistant to at least two antibiotics in air samples collected from inside a large scale swine operation in the Mid-Atlantic region.

The EPA says the agreement does not limit its ability to take action “in the event of imminent and substantial danger to public health or the environment.”

Operators that are the subject of current enforcement actions may be barred from joining the study, according to the agency, and the agreement also preserves state and local authorities’ authority to enforce local odor or nuisance laws.

EPA will accept public comment on the agreement for 30 days following publication in the Federal Register.

For information on how to submit comments, click here.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2005. All Rights Reserved.

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