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March 2005
Editorial: A Big Stink
By Sangamithra Iyer

 

It’s not groundbreaking news that in addition to being horribly cruel to billions of animals, commercial meat is no friend of the planet. The environmental and public harm of factory farms, also known as animal feeding operations (AFOs), which produce the majority of the eggs, dairy and meat in this country, have been on the priority radar of scientists, concerned citizens, and activists for years, and one could argue that it is the most pressing environmental problem today. Inefficient and wasteful land, water, and energy use is inherent in the meat industry. Considerable consolidation of animals has occurred over the past decade, creating concentrated animal feeding operations, which hold about 500 tons of animal bodies. These factory farms are responsible for annually generating about three trillion pounds of excrement, spreading nitrates into our groundwater, contaminating our surface waters, and killing aquatic life.

But the big stink about meat is really just that—a big stink. Both animal housing structures and manure storage areas contribute to emissions, which include greenhouse gases like methane, toxic gases like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Factory farm workers and neighboring communities are bearing the serious health burdens of these tolls on our air and water, which manifest as respiratory problems, gastrointestinal diseases, eye infections, and neurological disorders.

Since ammonia and hydrogen sulfide are hazardous substances, the release of these gases above regulatory limits needs to be reported under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980 and the Environmental Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) of 1986. Hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter, and VOCs are all regulated under the 1970 Clean Air Act (CAA) and are subject to state rules and regulations. Essentially, to achieve compliance with these federal regulations, all factory farms are responsible for knowing what and how much they release to assess whether their emissions fall above reportable and regulatory limits, and to procure the necessary air permits for their operations.

The meat industry has been facing lawsuits from the EPA, state governments, and local citizens groups for violations of these federal regulations and in some instances been forced to pay considerable fines. Attempting to evade more legal prosecution and fines, the industry approached the Bush EPA three years ago to negotiate a deal, and immediately after Bush’s second inaugural ball, which coincidentally was largely funded by Tyson Foods, the world’s largest beef and poultry producer, their wishes were granted. EPA cut AFOs some slack officially granting them federal immunity on violations of compliance with the CAA, CERCLA, and EPCRA for the next couple of years and from past offences, if they participate in a voluntary program to fund a monitoring study.

In exchange for this federal covenant not to sue, participating AFOs would contribute $2,500 into a nationwide emissions monitoring fund and pay a one-time civic penalty ranging from $200 to $1,000 per AFO, depending on the number of and type of animals housed. The total penalty is capped at $10,000 for a participant having 10 or fewer farms and $100,000 for a participant owning over 200 farms. These fines are nominal compared to the daily fines of up to $27,500 they would be subject to for every day in violation of the CAA. Under this agreement, Tyson Foods, with an annual revenue of about $25 billion, will likely pay a penalty of $100,000—chump change, considering they dropped the same amount on Bush’s inaugural ball.

The Fox Guarding the Henhouse
The goals of this air quality agreement are to monitor and evaluate emissions and promote a national consensus on methodologies for estimating emissions to ensure future compliance with federal regulations. It makes you wonder what these AFOs were (or weren’t) doing before to ensure compliance to these regulations if they were lacking adequate monitoring controls and estimation methodologies. How will the public be safeguarded from hazardous emissions during this two-year moratorium on federal prosecution? With this deal, participating AFOs get immunity for previous non-compliance and payment of penalty will not be considered an admission of liability.

While all factory farms can participate in this agreement and buy their immunity, only about 28 out of approximately 238,000 AFOs nationwide will be selected for the monitoring study—a scarce sampling from each animal species and geographic region. And guess who will be running this monitoring program? An “independent” nonprofit organization called the Agriculture Air Research Council set up by the meat industry. This council will manage the industry funds for the study, appointing a science advisor and an independent monitoring contractor to perform the study and provide their findings to the EPA. It will be interesting to see what scientific bias in emissions “estimation” methodologies will result with an industry-funded research council presenting data to an industry influenced EPA.

Why is our EPA luring polluters toward future compliance with a two-year free pass to pollute and federal immunity from past violations? Compliance to federal regulations requires these animal factories to know what and how much they are releasing. There’s no good reason for current compliance and full accountability not to occur simultaneous with a monitoring study to create even better policy and methodologies, and the EPA, not an industry-funded panel, should perform such a study. It is only fair that all factory farms pay the price for monitoring emissions to ensure minimal compliance, be subject to prosecution, and be held accountable for non-compliance for past, present, and future violations, as the regions and the communities they endanger continue to pay the environmental and health costs of their operations. That should not be so easily pardoned.

This federal covenant not to sue does not preclude states and citizen groups from filing suits against factory farms, and AFOs are still subject to state and local laws for odor, nuisance problems, health code violations, and zoning challenges. However, our federal government coupled with industry is insidiously finding ways to undermine state and local authorities. For example, the Class Action Fairness Act that just passed in Congress will move most major class action lawsuits from state courts to our backlogged and Republican packed federal courts that are distanced from the communities affected in these lawsuits.

The meat industry has been aggressively dodging social and environmental responsibility from these large scale offences, and it’s disheartening that they, with no vested interest in the general public, control our elected and appointed government. Now that really stinks.

To read more about this agreement see www.epa.gov/compliance/agreements/afo. To view or submit comments to the EPA visit www.epa.gov/edocket.

 


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