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offers air-pollution immunity to factory farms
By Amanda Griscom Little
24 Jan 2005
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this we alert page)
Friday, in the shadow of the splashy presidential inauguration
jamboree, the Bush EPA offered factory farms a tempting
tradeoff: more than two years of immunity from the Clean
Air Act and certain toxic-discharge standards in exchange
for participating in a data-collection program that would
monitor air emissions from their facilities.
Factory farms may be getting off easy, but not so the chickens.EPA
enforcement honcho Thomas Skinner hailed the agreement in
a statement as "a huge step forward" in the effort
to reduce factory-farm emissions, while environmentalists
say the deal stinks as bad as the mountains of steaming
excrement responsible for the harmful pollutants these farms
the past decade, as the meat, dairy, and egg industries
have boomed and been consolidated, massive factories --
known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs
-- have replaced many smaller-scale farms. The huge numbers
of chickens, hogs, and heifers in these densely packed facilities
produce even huger piles of waste, which in turn produce
ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, volatile organic compounds, and
particulates. Exactly how much of these pollutants, we don't
yet know; CAFOs' emissions haven't been systematically studied.
officials say they need to gather emissions data before
they can "make informed regulatory and policy determinations"
about how to curb CAFO pollution, and they say their new
plan is just the way to do it. In exchange for amnesty for
air violations during the next two years, as well as any
previous infractions, CAFOs participating in the voluntary
program will fund emissions monitoring.
Clean Air Act as designed didn't have huge feeding operations
in mind; [CAFOs are] different from most of the things it
regulates," EPA press secretary Cynthia Bergman told
Muckraker. Data gathered via the new system will yield "a
representative sampling from which we can estimate the emissions
from all kinds of farms around the country," she said.
"This way we can get far more [CAFOs] into compliance
than by the traditional case-by-case approach." The
agency touts the collaborative nature of its plan, saying
that a strategy of slapping lawsuits one by one on CAFOs
that violate Clean Air Act standards would be too costly
and time-consuming. Bergman stresses that the deal requires
all participating facilities to come into compliance with
the law once the monitoring project is complete.
Factory farms get off easy on air pollution
Enviros counter that while new data would be warmly welcomed,
there's no need to paralyze the law-enforcement process
in order to collect it. "It's true that much of the
consolidation has happened in the last decade, so everybody
agrees that additional data collection is appropriate,"
said Michele Merkel, a former staff attorney in the EPA's
enforcement division who filed the agency's first suit against
a CAFO for Clean Air Act violations in October 1999, under
the Clinton administration. "But the Clean Air Act
on its own requires polluting facilities to provide this
kind of data. EPA does not need to suspend its enforcement
authority while the monitoring takes place."
now an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project,
says that a halt to enforcement could mean increased health
risks for CAFO employees and nearby residents from toxic
emissions such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide released
by decomposing feces. A 2002 study by Iowa State University
and the University of Iowa Study Group revealed widespread
cases of bronchitis in workers exposed to these pollutants.
to Ed Hopkins, environmental quality director for the Sierra
Club, the biggest CAFOs have emission levels comparable
to those of industrial manufacturing facilities. One egg
farm in Iowa was recently found to have ammonia emissions
on par with a fertilizer manufacturing plant ranked as the
ninth biggest producer of this hazardous gas in the country,
Hold your nose.
Environmentalists also note that the fees required to participate
in the program are a pittance compared to penalties that
can be levied under the Clean Air Act. In addition to the
$2,500 membership fee, CAFO-owning companies will be asked
to cough up a one-time penalty of between $200 and $100,000
(according to the number and size of their facilities) to
be pardoned for "presumed" past air-quality violations.
"This is chump change compared to the fines violators
have faced in the past," said Merkel. Under the Clean
Air Act, farms violating the law can be fined up to $27,500
per day per facility.
only sliver of hope, enviros say, is that the plan is subject
to a 30-day public-comment period -- a protocol that was
left out of the initial draft of the agreement. "We
got a tip from someone inside the agency that they were
going to cut the public-comment period altogether, knowing
that [the amnesty plan] would provoke an outcry," said
Merkel. "A number of us, including Capitol Hill staffers,
weighed in and made sure it was reinstated."
no coincidence that the deal made its public debut the day
after the president was sworn in for his second term, Merkel
claims. "Politically it was much easier for them to
get it out now than at the end of the first term. They were
getting a lot of public pressure when word of this deal
got out months ago, so they knew it would turn heads."
day after the inauguration was also a good time to return
favors from factory-farm giants such as Tyson Foods, which
lobbied heavily in favor of the voluntary program. It just
so happens that Tyson was among the biggest contributors
to the inaugural festivities, having forked over a cool
$100,000 for the affair. Among the goodies Tyson execs received
for their donation were VIP tickets to the inaugural parade
and a candlelight dinner for 10 with Dubyah and the Veep.
But, enviros argue, even those party favors don't hold a
candle to the get-out-of-jail-free card they got handed
on the full first day of Bush's second term.