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A New EPA Rule Would Allow Factory Farms to Avoid Reporting Air Pollution

What factory farm owners portray as “normal odors” from animal waste can cause serious harm to farmers and the residents who live near these large industrial operations.

The Trump administration, like it has with many important health and safety rules, is siding with industry and ignoring how animal waste can have serious impacts on the health of Americans.

Embracing the “normal odor” argument, acting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler signed a proposed rule on Tuesday to amend emergency release notification regulations to let industrial agricultural operations off the hook from reporting air emissions from animal waste at their farms.

This is despite the mountain of evidence that shows concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) produce toxic air that can be lethal for farm workers and nearby residents.

The Missouri Farm Bureau hosts Acting Administrator Wheeler for a roundtable on agricultural issues. (Photo credit: EPA)

“This proposed rule is intended to make it clear to the regulated community that animal waste emissions from farms do not need to be reported under EPCRA,” Wheeler said Tuesday in a statement.

EPCRA stands for the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. In the case of massive farming operations that produce huge amounts of animal waste, Wheeler concluded that communities do not have a right to know about potentially toxic emissions.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), who joined Wheeler at the signing ceremony in Kansas, said it was never the intent of Congress for “normal odors from animal waste on farms to fall under the nation’s emergency hazardous waste reporting requirements.”

But these so-called normal odors are “literally choking nearby residents,” responded Hannah Connor, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, who views the proposed rule as “a giant step backward for the health of Americans.”

“We know the millions of pounds of largely untreated waste from the nation’s factory farms are significant sources of air pollution, including ammonia, particulate matter and greenhouse gas methane,” she said in a statement Tuesday.

These pollutants have killed farm workers and residents because of the hydrogen sulfide and other emissions, noted Tarah Heinzen, a staff attorney with Food & Water Watch.

“These are not nuisance odors. These are dangerous emissions that communities have the right to know about,” Heinzen said.

The EPA, under Wheeler’s leadership, is handing out favors to polluting industries at a similar rate to former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who viewed polluting industries as the stakeholders that needed special protection.

Other recent moves by President Trump’s EPA to undermine the health and safety of Americans include the proposal to roll back federal auto emissions and fuel efficiency standards, plans to weaken the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, and the suspension of the Chemical Disaster Rule. In August, though, a federal court delivered a victory to chemical workers and people who live near chemical plants when it ordered the EPA to immediately implement the chemical safety rule.

The air emissions reporting that the Trump administration is trying to eliminate provide state and federal regulators with important data. The reports can be used to determine if the farm should be feeding their livestock different types of feed or if the facilities need different equipment or ventilation to prevent harmful air emissions.

In 2017, a federal court ordered the EPA in 2017 to close a loophole that exempted CAFOs from the same pollutant reporting required of other industries to ensure public safety. Prior to the creation of the loophole at the end of the Bush administration in 2008, federal law long required CAFOs, like all other industrial facilities, to notify government officials when toxic pollution levels exceeded public safety thresholds.

The EPA, though, decided to ignore the court order. Instead, it issued guidance stating reporting does not need to occur from these CAFOs based on its interpretation of EPCRA.

“The Trump administration turned around and issued unlawful guidance that attempted to do exactly what the court had just said was illegal,” Heinzen said.

In March, Trump signed into law a bill known as the FARM Act, which made changes to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). The bill was a regulatory rollback that exempted all farms from reporting air releases of hazardous substances from animal waste under CERCLA.

But the new law did not exempt factory farms from reporting requirements under EPCRA, another right-to-know law.

Lagoons outside a factory farm in North Carolina. Photo CC-licensed by Waterkeeper Alliance.

According to Heinzen, the EPA is basing its “unlawful” rule, issued Tuesday, on a misinterpretation of the FARM Act legislation.

Factory farm operators often portray the release of emissions from their facilities as harmless and part of their routine agricultural operations. But sudden exposure to these toxic emissions can be fatal: one study found that 19 workers at CAFOs were killed from hydrogen sulfide released during manure agitation. Chronic exposures to lower levels of these pollutants are also associated with a long list of health impacts, including headaches, respiratory irritation, and nausea.

People who live nearby suffer from constant exposure to foul odors, as well as the toxic effects of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. At low levels, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. Prolonged exposure to ammonia can burn lung tissue, and the long-term effects of hydrogen sulfide exposure include memory loss, poor motor function, and decreased attention span.

“Although the Trump Administration and its allies sometimes dismiss this issue as farm ‘odors,’ the ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and other air pollutants from concentrated animal feeding operations that sometimes hold tens of thousands animals can pose a serious threat to public health,” Abel Russ, attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, said in a statement.

On Monday, Food & Water Watch and the Environmental Integrity Project joined other groups in filing a request for summary judgment in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that would require the EPA to reverse its guidance issued in 2017 that exempted factory farms from reporting their toxic emissions from animal waste under EPCRA.

Heinzen said she could not comment on Food & Water Watch’s legal strategy with regard to the proposed rule issued Tuesday. But she explained the rule is illegal for many of the same reasons that the group is fighting the guidance that the EPA issued to factory farms in 2017.

“This administration and past administrations have repeatedly tried to claim that factory farm pollution is the same as any odor you would get from living in a rural community from a family farm,” she said. “And we know that’s not true. These are industrial facilities that emit industrial amounts of dangerous pollutants.”

The public will have 30 days to comment on the proposed rule after it’s published in the Federal Register.

This article originally appeared on Think Progress and is reprinted with permission.

Top photo: Lagoons outside a factory farm in North Carolina. Photo CC-licensed by Waterkeeper Alliance.

Mark Hand

Mark Hand is a climate and environment reporter at ThinkProgress.

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