Farms May Be Exempted From Emission Rules

Under an EPA proposal, large farms would no longer have to report emissions of toxic gases from animal waste.
Under an EPA proposal, large farms would no longer have to report emissions of toxic gases from animal waste. (By Mitchell Zachs -- Associated Press)
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By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Under pressure from agriculture industry lobbyists and lawmakers from agricultural states, the Environmental Protection Agency wants to drop requirements that factory farms report their emissions of toxic gases, despite findings by the agency's scientists that the gases pose a health threat.

The EPA acknowledges that the emissions can pose a threat to people living and working nearby, but it says local emergency responders don't use the reports, making them unnecessary. But local air-quality agencies, environmental groups and lawmakers who oppose the rule change say the reports are one of the few tools rural communities have for holding large livestock operations accountable for the pollution they produce.

Opponents of the rule change say agriculture lobbyists orchestrated a campaign to convince the EPA that the reports are not useful and misrepresented the effort as reflecting the views of local officials. They say the plan to drop the reporting requirement is emblematic of a broader effort by the Bush-era EPA to roll back federal pollution rules.

"One of the running themes we have seen is they have taken numerous industry-friendly actions that are shot down in the courts, but they buy time for industry" in appeals and reviews that could extend years into the next administration, said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a nonprofit environmental group based in Washington.

The EPA requirement that farms report large emissions of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide from animal manure has been on the books since the 1980s. The EPA does not set limits for the releases; it merely requires that farms disclose emissions over certain levels. Local public health officials say that if people in an area started getting sick with symptoms pointing to emissions, knowing who was reporting big releases of the gases would be most helpful.

The EPA proposed dropping the farm emissions reporting requirement in the aftermath of lawsuits brought by communities against several big farms sought damages and stricter controls of emissions.

The livestock industry has lobbied for years for the rule change. The EPA posted the proposal in the Federal Register while Congress -- which is deeply divided on the issue -- was on its December holiday recess. The change would take effect in October.

"Every major air pollution regulation that affects the agriculture industry has been weakened or delayed by this administration," said S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which represents local and state air-quality agencies. "These are not inconsequential pollutants. In large concentrations, they kill people."

Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on environment and hazardous materials, called the proposal a "gift from the Bush administration to big corporate animal-feeding operations that denies the public of knowledge that serious contaminants are in the air."

The rule change would eliminate ammonia emissions reporting for big animal-feeding operations such as Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman, Ore., where waste from tens of thousands of dairy cows releases more than 15,000 pounds of ammonia into the atmosphere each day, according to the EPA.

The agency estimates that livestock operations generate two-thirds of the ammonia emissions reported in the nation. The National Association of Clean Air Agencies blames manure-pit emissions containing hydrogen sulfide and ammonia for the deaths of at least two dozen people working or living near the operations in the Midwest over the past three decades.

In a February 2004 memo to EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson obtained by congressional investigators, agency scientist Roy L. Smith called the ammonia reporting requirements "appropriately protective, though not overprotective," of public health. In tests of the air downwind of factory farms, he found that ammonia concentrations slightly over the reportable levels caused respiratory irritation and that the minimum reportable emissions of hydrogen sulfide "could cause acute respiratory irritation and effects to the central nervous system."

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