By Britt E. Erickson
Congress exempts farms from reporting air pollutants to federal agencies, leaving states to deal with animal waste releases.
Aconstant rotten stench, biting flies, and air that burns your eyes and throat. That is how neighbors of some large-scale animal farms describe the environment around their homes. They don’t enjoy going outdoors, and they don’t open their windows.
Such is life for Jeff and Gail Schwartzkopf, who purchased their house in rural Rudd, Iowa, four years ago. Shortly after they moved in, the couple discovered that they were getting new neighbors. Thousands of squealing pigs moved in less than 600 meters from their property line, and “their lives changed forever,” according to testimony of Mark Kuhn, a farmer and county supervisor in Iowa. Kuhn was speaking in favor of requiring large-scale animal facilities to report dangerous air emissions during a March 8 subcommittee hearing
of the U.S. Senate Environment & Public Works (EPW) Committee.
Air quality is not just a problem near pig farms in Iowa; similar concerns have arisen elsewhere, such as dairy operations in Wisconsin, egg-laying facilities throughout the Midwest, and broiler chicken houses in Maryland. For decades, the U.S. agriculture industry has moved to increase profits by geographically concentrating facilities. The size of these facilities has increased over the years, and today tens of thousands of animals are raised in confined spaces. As emissions from such facilities go largely unchecked, concerns about negative impacts on the environment and public health are on the rise.
Just days after the hearing, however, lawmakers passed the Fair Agricultural Reporting Method (FARM) Act (S. 2421), a bill that exempts farmers and ranchers from reporting air emissions to federal agencies. The bill was attached as a rider to the omnibus federal spending bill that funds the federal government for the remainder of fiscal 2018 (see page 16). Lawmakers stepped up in response to a recent court decision that would have required farms to report emissions of hazardous pollutants such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide when they exceeded specific thresholds.
?Animal waste contributes 50 to 85% of ammonia emissions in the U.S., according to EPA estimates. Here's a look at the top five sectors by metric tons of NH3 emissions per year.?
The reporting exemptions, however, leave people like the Schwartzkopfs with little information on what is in the air they breathe. They worry about their health and suffer from fatigue, digestive issues, and insomnia, Kuhn testified. With livestock operations off the hook at the federal level, states are now responsible for determining whether and how to address pollution from the industry.
Exempting farm emissions
Since 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has exempted farmers and ranchers from air emissions reporting requirements under a 1980 federal law known as Superfund, or the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation & Liability Act (CERCLA). EPA’s 2008 rule also exempted farms from reporting hazardous air releases under the 1986 Emergency Planning & Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) if the farm had fewer animals than a so-called concentrated animal feeding operation.
EPA interprets the law to exclude farms from EPCRA requirements because they use substances like animal waste in routine agricultural operations. In guidance released in October, EPA noted that reporting under EPCRA is required for facilities that produce, use, or store a hazardous chemical, and EPCRA specifically excludes substances used “in routine agricultural operations” from the definition of a “hazardous chemical.” EPA claimed in 2008 that emissions reports “are unnecessary because, in most cases, a federal response is impractical and unlikely.”
Others in favor of exempting farms from emission requirements note that CERCLA’s purpose is to require industrial reporting so that federal, state, and local officials can evaluate how to respond in an emergency situation. CERCLA gives EPA tools to clean up hazardous waste sites and hold responsible parties accountable, Senate EPW Committee Chair Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said at the March 8 hearing. “When applied to the everyday activities on ranches and farms, it makes very little sense,” he said.
Most egg-laying hens in the U.S. are raised in conventional battery cages, but a growing number of producers are switching to cage-free housing because of animal welfare concerns.
Had EPA not exempted them in 2008, as many as 100,000 farms and ranches would have had to comply with CERCLA and EPCRA reporting requirements. However, many are not large industrialized facilities spewing out pollutants at high enough concentrations to make people in the community sick. Some of them manage manure from thousands of animals by relocating the waste to farms that use it as fertilizer to grow corn, soybeans, and other crops. In other cases, such as cattle raised on pastures, emissions are spread out over a large area.
When applied to such operations, CERCLA and EPCRA create “needless requirements that burden the agricultural community while providing no environmental or public health benefit,” Todd Mortenson, a South Dakota rancher honored by the Sand County Foundation for his land conservation practices, said at the Senate hearing. He testified at the hearing on behalf of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which represents cattle producers and family ranchers.
Nevertheless, environmental and citizen groups had challenged EPA’s rule exempting farms from emissions reporting, saying that EPA does not have the authority to exempt any industry from CERCLA and EPCRA requirements. In April 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, putting farms back on the hook to report emissions. At EPA’s request, the court delayed the effective date until at least May 1, 2018, so that EPA could develop guidance documents to help farmers understand the reporting requirements.
Now, with the passage of the FARM Act, Congress has exempted farmers and ranchers from one of the two laws—CERCLA. Large-scale industrialized farms, however, will still have to report emissions of certain hazardous air pollutants to state and local officials under EPCRA.Click here to see more...