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In California, Agriculture Takes Center Stage in Pollution Debate

"I don't see a very good future for agriculture," said Mendes, whose son goes to college in nearby Stockton. "We're an industry under attack, and I don't want it for my kids."

Activists such as Brent Newell, a lawyer at the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment, said farmers' recalcitrance and the local authorities' willingness to weaken their proposed rules have undermined the new law.

"The fact that the regulated industry fights it every step of the way is the saddest part of the whole thing," he said. As for San Joaquin regulators, he added, "They just look the other way and let it go."

Residents have formed a citizens' group to fight large dairy producers. Tom Frantz, a Shafter native who heads the Association of Irritated Residents, said area farms are "like a factory in your midst."

"We're really irritated because our lungs are being used as an agricultural subsidy," said Frantz, who has asthma. His group notified farmer Rick Vanderham this month that residents plan to sue him for building a new 2,800-cow dairy without a Clean Air Act permit.

California's debate is not unique: Public health advocates in states including North Carolina and Iowa have pushed to regulate hog, poultry and dairy farms -- known as "confined animal feeding operations" -- with varying degrees of success.

In the Washington area, farms account for more than 30 percent of the pollutants that cause "dead zones" in the Chesapeake Bay -- where algae blooms deplete the oxygen, and fish and crabs cannot breathe. Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania have all tried to make farmers reduce the amount of fertilizer and manure washing off their fields. But environmentalists say their efforts, including pollution caps on some large farms, are not enough.

Under a 2000 agreement between North Carolina pork producers and the state attorney general, North Carolina State University professor C.M. "Mike" Williams has spent five years researching how to treat manure from the state's 10 million hogs in an affordable way. Williams, who has identified five effective technologies but is still gauging their costs, said the state needs to clean its waste load even if no "silver bullet" exists.

"I do not feel like that system is long-term sustainable," he said.

Large-scale livestock farms have mushroomed in recent decades -- 5 percent of U.S. farms now account for 54 percent of beef and dairy cattle, according to the Agriculture Department -- presenting a new challenge to regulators. Environmental Protection Agency officials began investigating the massive operations in the mid-1990s after nearby residents complained of respiratory and eye problems.

The government scored some initial wins: Missouri-based Premium Standard Farms agreed to monitor emissions at its hog farms in 1999, and the company has spent $9.5 million on technology that converts hog waste and emissions into commercial dry fertilizer. But Bush administration officials ordered the EPA to stop investigating farm emissions in 2001.

Last month, the administration struck a deal with more than 2,700 livestock firms, exempting them from prosecution for air pollution violations until mid-2008 while the agency researches the issue. Each firm must contribute $2,500 to help fund a study of two dozen livestock operations and pay a penalty on a sliding scale to address past violations.

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