The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced yesterday a temporary amnesty for pollution enforcement against large livestock operations that agree to air monitoring and pay small fines.
Ammonia rising from chicken, pig and cow manure is regarded by researchers as a significant source of pollution that drifts back down into waterways and helps to create low-oxygen "dead zones" in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere.
The agreement is likely to mean individual fines ranging from $200 to $100,000 for many of the 2,100 chicken farms on the Delmarva peninsula, but no immediate changes requiring them to install air pollution filters on chicken house fans or vents.
Environmental groups decried the agreement as a back-room deal that lets the meat industry off the hook.
"Instead of forcing polluters to clean up their act, the Bush administration has given them a get-out-of-jail-free card," said Ed Hopkins, environmental quality director for the Sierra Club.
But Cynthia Bergman, spokeswoman for the EPA, said the agreement is a step forward that will allow the government to study emissions from large farms and determine what standards need to be set.
"What the EPA gets out of this deal dwarfs this covenant not to sue. We get the data to enforce the Clean Air Act," Bergman said. "We are sorely lacking data right now to know if the animal feeding operations may or may not be violating the Clean Air Act."
Under the agreement, chicken and livestock farms across the country would have to pay civil penalties of between $200 and $100,000, contribute up to $2,500 each toward a fund for a national emissions monitoring program and report any large releases of ammonia, Bergman said.
For two years, the EPA will study the air pollution coming from 28 sample farms around the country, then examine the data for 18 months.
The farms that agree to pay the penalties will receive a guarantee not to be sued by the EPA for past air or hazardous substance reporting violations.
The agency will make an exception for "cases that may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health."
When the study period ends, so does the amnesty. The EPA will use the data it collected to set standards, and the farms will be required to apply for air pollution permits and comply with the limits in those permits, the agency said.
The EPA never enforced the 1970 Clean Air Act against farms until the late 1990s. That was when animal feeding operations began to grow until some were so sprawling, with hundreds of thousands of pigs and vast lagoons holding feces, that they triggered complaints from neighbors about breathing and neurological problems.
In 1999, the Justice Department sued a large Missouri hog operation, Premium Standard Farms, on behalf of the EPA. That resulted in a consent decree that required the farm to monitor their pits and barns for air pollution.
In November 2003, the Justice Department filed a complaint against Buckeye Egg of Ohio, which had the capacity to house 12 million chickens in over 100 barns, for failing to comply with the Clean Air Act. One of its facilities was alleged to release over 1.6 million pounds of ammonia into the air a year.
Bergman, the EPA spokeswoman, said the legal action resulted in Buckeye's agreeing to install air pollution controls, but the whole process took years. Instead of filing individual lawsuits like this, the agency believes it will make more sweeping progress if it conducts a study of the problem nationally and then starts requiring all farms to obtain permits and follow limits, Bergman said.
Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, said he doesn't consider air pollution from chicken farms to be a problem. But he said it's sensible for the EPA to conduct a study.
"It had been customarily thought that the Clean Air Act applied to industrial facilities, with smokestacks - we don't have any smokestacks on farms," Lobb said.
But Bill Street, director of watershed restoration for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said action is needed.
He said one recent study concluded that Delmarva chicken houses annually produce tens of millions of pounds of ammonia, which is a form of nitrogen pollution that leads to a lack of oxygen in the water.
"All sources of nitrogen contribute to dead zones and loss of underwater grasses, which hurt our crabs and fish," Street said.