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EPA Guidance Falls Short of Protecting Communities

Air Releases of Hazardous Substances from Animal Waste Will Continue

Sometimes our job as Waterkeepers can get very wonky. And this is one of those times. Not only do we comment on and challenge flawed regulations, we also slog through the guidance documents that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drafts about how these regulations should be interpreted and applied. Last month, the EPA released a Guidance regarding a new requirement that Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) – known as factory farms -- report the release of hazardous substances from their facilities.

This Guidance came a few months after the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that CAFOs are not exempt from the reporting requirements under Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) and Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA). The decision was meant to close a EPA loophole that has long exempted CAFOs from reporting the same hazardous substances – like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide – as other industries.

The Court reasoned that public health professionals and emergency responders would need this information to adequately respond to emergencies and community threats. Under the ruling, a CAFO owner or operator must notify federal authorities under CERCLA and state and local authorities under EPCRA after it releases a large amount of ammonia or hydrogen sulfide.

The EPA estimates that nearly three-quarters of the country’s ammonia emissions come from CAFOs. According to the Government Accountability Office, the amount of manure from CAFOs ranges from 2,800 tons to 1.6 million tons a year. The manure ends up emitting high quantities of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, volatile methane and particulate matter after it’s stored or applied to cropland, where it either decomposes or undergoes nitrification and de-nitrification. The ventilation systems in CAFOs also release harmful levels of ammonia emissions. For instance, a study conducted by Iowa State University found that two chicken houses in Kentucky emitted over 10 tons of ammonia in one year.

Ammonia air pollution is associated with some serious health effects, including throat irritation; chemical burns to the respiratory tract, skin and eyes; chronic lung disease; and increased mortality rates.

Despite this, EPA’s Guidance exempts more than ninety percent of the largest CAFOs across the United States from reporting. The EPA justified exempting these CAFOs because they are under a 2005 Animal Feeding Operation Air Compliance Agreement. These compliance agreements were set up so the EPA could develop a reliable way to estimate emissions from CAFOs and determine whether they comply with Clean Air Act standards, but a recent report from the EPA’s Office of the Inspector found that the agency has not been able to make much progress – even after 11 years.

Another glaring issue with EPA’s Guidance is that all farms are virtually excluded from reporting hazardous emissions to state and local authorities. Under the Guidance, any farm that uses manure as part of its “routine agricultural operations” is exempted from the reporting requirements under EPCRA §304. EPA stated that it “believes Congress did not intend to impose EPCRA reporting requirements on farms engaged in routine agricultural operations.”

The “continuous release” reporting required under CERCLA §103 allows for too much uncertainty as it allows for CAFOs to report in “broad ranges” to federal authorities and only requires CAFOs to review their emissions annually.

EPA’s Guidance also falls short of informing CAFO operators and owners on how they should estimate the amount of hazardous substances emitted by their facilities. Despite acknowledging the difficulty in measuring these emissions, EPA does not require any monitoring and allows operators and owners to use their “best professional judgment.”

While this Guidance was meant to educate CAFO owners and operators on how to comply with the recent decision from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, it largely circumvents the Court’s impetus for requiring CAFOs to report hazardous emissions in the first place – to protect communities and provide much needed information for local authorities and emergency responders.

The Guidance and reporting requirements will go into effect on November 15th, but the EPA has requested a stay until January 17th, which the Court has yet to rule on.

Read our detailed comments on the Guidance.

[Aerial photos of chicken CAFOs by Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips.]