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EPA Plans Farm Pollution Amnesty

Large feedlots would be spared lawsuits if they took part in a program to monitor emissions. Environmental groups say it's too lenient.

September 25, 2003|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency is planning to offer large livestock farms amnesty from lawsuits if they take part in a program to monitor air emissions.

If industry groups and the EPA reach an agreement, the plan would generate data that regulators could use to determine how much air pollution is emitted by pork, poultry, egg, dairy and cattle operations of various sizes, and it could eventually result in requirements that the farms control air pollutants created by animal waste.

Those wastes emit nitrogen, methane and other gases that combine with substances in the air to create ozone or smog. Ammonia, another gas emitted by animal waste, can form small particulate matter, a respiratory irritant linked to asthma attacks, heart and lung problems and early deaths.

Because feeding operations have become much larger in recent years, emissions have become a significant problem, EPA officials say.

Environmental groups criticized the proposal, saying it would allow such facilities to continue to flout the Clean Air Act for an indeterminate length of time.

"It lets polluters off the hook, sets no firm deadlines and contains no firm requirements for the livestock industry to clean up its pollution," said Joe Rudek, senior scientist with Environmental Defense, a national environmental group.

But EPA officials described the plan as an attempt to start regulating an industry that may be polluting a great deal but has not been subject to regulations.

"It's bringing them into the system; it's exactly the opposite of letting them off the hook," said Bob Kaplan, director of the EPA's division of special litigation and projects.

The Bush administration has been seeking compliance with environmental laws through voluntary agreements with industry instead of through litigation.

A deal between the EPA and the livestock industry could have a significant effect in California, home to thousands of large animal feeding operations -- and acute smog problems in the Central Valley, where many such farms are located.

On Monday, Gov. Gray Davis signed a law that ended agriculture's exemption from the Clean Air Act. Among other things, the law requires the state to define what constitutes a "large confined feeding operation" and monitor emissions to determine their effect on the environment.

The nation's largest milk-producing state, California has about 2,000 dairies with about 1.5 million cows. About 1,400 of the operations have at least 700 mature animals.

Michael Marsh, chief executive of Western United Dairymen, which represents the industry in California, said he supported the proposal because it would take a scientific approach to studying the emissions before establishing and enforcing regulations. Marsh said he believed the studies would show that dairies do not pollute the air as much as environmentalists assert.

Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation, which represents poultry farmers, said that his members were working with the California Environmental Protection Agency to come up with ways to monitor and test emissions and that he did not expect that they would be required to do much to control their air emissions.

Mattos said California has about 80 large chicken ranches with more than 125,000 birds, and 35 large turkey ranches with more than 55,000 birds. "We don't look at this as a major problem for the poultry industry," he said.

Industry groups approached the EPA with the suggestion of amnesty from Clean Air Act penalties in return for participation in monitoring efforts. The EPA's Kaplan discussed the plan Wednesday after environmental groups released a draft of the proposal that had been leaked to them.

Although nothing has been finalized, the industry groups are eager to reach an agreement with the EPA that would give an independent organization -- chosen by the industry and approved by the EPA -- the ability to conduct emissions studies that would become the basis for future regulation, said Richard Schwartz, a Washington lawyer who represents the egg, dairy and pork industries in their talks with EPA.

The agricultural industry wants to have a "level playing field," where all the facilities are held to a single standard, Schwartz added.

The Clinton administration was the first to apply the Clean Air Act to the livestock business when it began enforcement actions against some large feedlot operations.

Michele Merkel, who worked on those efforts as an EPA lawyer until she left the agency a year and a half ago, criticized the Bush administration for allowing the cases to languish.

She argued that the administration's new plan for addressing the problem would allow the large livestock facilities to stall even longer before they had to control pollution.

"This is another potential delay of years before the industry has to clean up its act," said Merkel, senior counsel for the Washington-based Environmental Integrity Project, an environmental research group.

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