In a lawsuit filed today against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a coalition of groups challenged a last-minute Bush administration rule that exempts factory farms from federal laws requiring them to alert government officials when they release unsafe levels of toxic emissions into the surrounding community.
The environmental law firm Earthjustice filed the suit on behalf of the groups, arguing that the exemption will harm people living and working near factory farms. Earthjustice is representing the Waterkeeper Alliance, Sierra Club, Environmental Integrity Project, The Humane Society of the United States, Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future and Center for Food Safety.
Factory farms, formally known as Confined Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs, are large-scale livestock facilities that confine large numbers of animals in relatively small spaces. A large factory farm may contain upwards of 1,000 cattle, 2,500 hogs or 125,000 chickens. Such facilities generate a massive amount of urine and feces, which is commonly liquefied and either stored under the facility or nearby in open air lagoons. This waste is known to release high levels of toxic pollutants into the air such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide.
"These massive animal confinement facilities operate in complete disregard for the welfare of animals and the environment, and should be doing more, not less, to inform local citizens of the dangers they create for our communities," said Jonathan R. Lovvorn of The Humane Society of the United States.
Like other industrial facilities, federal law has long required factory farms to notify government officials when toxic pollution levels exceed public safety thresholds. The Bush administration's last-minute rulemaking now exempts factory farms from filing these reports. Not surprisingly, the rule change was sought by the industry following successful litigation against factory farms that held them accountable for their widespread failure to comply with environmental laws.
"Factory farms commonly release unsafe levels of toxic air pollution that can be dangerous for workers and nearby residents," said Earthjustice attorney Keri Powell. "The Bush administration's parting gift to factory farms is to help them guard that dirty secret."
An increasing body of scientific evidence shows that ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and other factory farm emissions pose serious threats to human health and the environment. Among other problems, exposure to factory farm air pollution can cause respiratory illness, lung inflammation and increased vulnerability to asthma.
"These corporate agricultural operations have the know-how to comply with the simple reporting rules that EPA is trying to repeal and ought to be required to do so," said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project.
The rise of CAFOs has been a primary factor in the decline of small family farms. The number of family farms declined by 39 percent between 1969 and 2002. By 2002, only 25 percent of all farms in the nation were family farms. Meanwhile, the number of factory farms has jumped from about 3,600 factory farms decades ago to almost 12,000.
"Protecting people's health from toxic air pollution is more important than shielding factory farms from right-to-know laws," said Ed Hopkins of the Sierra Club.
The reporting data is crucial for communities struggling with pollution from factory farms.
In one high-profile instance, EPA relied on emissions data reported by Ohio's largest egg producer to address dangerously high concentrations of hazardous air pollutants released into a neighboring community, securing a $1.4 million settlement for local air pollution controls.
"Factory farm pollution is destroying the economic viability of rural communities," said Kim Snell-Zarcone, staff attorney for PennFuture. "In areas with uncontrolled pollution, local families and businesses leave, and no new investors move in. If we are ever to revive our economy, we must have a clean environment."
"Wastes from factory farming significantly contribute to global warming and create dangerous food pathogens," said Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety. "As shown by the recent passage of Proposition 2 in California, the public wants more regulation on these cruel and unsustainable operations, not the blank check recently given by the outgoing Bush Administration."
While the exemptions apply specifically to factory farm air emissions, such emissions pollute the land and the water as well. For example, ammonia emitted into the air by a factory farm quickly combines with atmospheric water and falls back to earth as acid rain, poisoning water resources and killing vegetation.
"EPA's new exemption essentially subsidizes the factory farm industry by helping to shield it from responsibility for the water and air pollution that it forces on neighboring communities and the environment," said Hannah Connor of the Waterkeeper Alliance.
A report showing the huge volume of ammonia emissions from poultry operations in the top 10 poultry-producing states.
Report detailing the dangerous impacts of emissions from animal waste