Courts reprimand agency for giving big companies a pass on animal waste.
Following a recent court case, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) – more commonly known as factory farms or animal feeding lots – will have to report their air pollution emissions.
Earlier this year, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals declared illegal a 2008 EPA rule exempting most CAFOs from reporting releases of certain levels of hazardous substances into the air. Judge Stephen Williams wrote in the decision that the EPA does not have “carte blanche to ignore the statute whenever it decides the reporting requirements aren’t worth the trouble.”
Before that EPA rule was put in place, federal law required CAFOs, like all other industries, to notify the government when toxic pollution levels exceeded public safety thresholds.
The EPA’s rationale for letting CAFOs off the hook was that because a federal response to the reports would be “impractical and unlikely,” the pollution reports themselves would serve no purpose. That’s a telling statement from an agency whose mandate is to protect our environment!
Quick background: most of the air pollution from animal feeding operations comes from manure. And there’s a lot of it – the amount of urine and feces produced by the smallest CAFOs is equivalent to that produced by 16,000 humans. As it breaks down, manure produces many substances that are regulated under the Clean Air Act: such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, nitrous oxide, and volatile organic compounds.
These pollutants can be dangerous. Ammonia and hydrogen sulfide can irritate the eyes, nose, throat, and respiratory tract. Methane is generally non-toxic but can become toxic if mixed with other substances (and it is a greenhouse gas). In the words of the Court, “people have become seriously ill and even died” from CAFO emissions.
The CAFO industry does not want transparency. We reported recently that the EPA, National Pork Producers Council, and the American Farm Bureau reached a settlement that allowed EPA to release only the most limited information about the location of CAFOs. Moreover, after intense lobbying from the meat industry in 2012, the agency decided to not even count how many CAFOs are operating in the US.
We hope that a spotlight can now be placed on these factory farms that have for so long operated in the shadows with the help of government collusion. Environmental groups have now filed a petition with the EPA to overhaul its regulations for how CAFOs are treated under the Clean Water Act, but if this leads anywhere it will likely have to be through the courts.