Large feedlots would no longer have to report toxic emissions under a rule proposed Dec. 21, 2007, by EPA. The result in some cases would be neighbors ignorant of what was causing their asthma and other disease symptoms.
The cattle, swine, and poultry industries have pushed unsuccessfully for such an exemption in Congress for several years, with amendments offered by Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID) to various spending bills. Now they are trying to get EPA to do the same thing by regulation.
The proposed rule, published Dec. 28, 2007, in the Federal Register, would exempt "farms" from certain reporting requirements of the federal "Superfund" law (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA) and the "Bhopal Bill" (Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, or EPCRA). Both laws deal with release of toxic and hazardous chemicals.
The two biggest (but not the only) air toxics of concern with feedlots (known as confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs) are ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. Both are generated by large quantities of manure and both can be immediately lethal in high enough amounts and concentrations. Both can also cause serious illness in lower concentrations.
Feedlot emissions of these toxic gases are not only unregulated — they are huge. The largest emitter of ammonia in the U.S. may not be a factory or chemical plant but a feedlot. A few years ago one Oregon operation feeding some 52,300 dairy cows reported that it was emitting 15,500 pounds of ammonia per day, more than 5,675,000 pounds per year — an amount that rivals the largest industrial emitter.
At sub-lethal concentrations, ammonia is a gas that can cause asthma, bronchitis, coughing, and sore throats — conditions that may be worse for children, seniors, and those with pre-existing lung conditions. Livestock operations can produce concentrations far above what is considered safe for either occupational or residential exposure.
CAFOs or "farms" don't have to report emissions under the Toxics Release Inventory (part of EPCRA). But they do have to report releases of listed air toxics under certain other provisions of EPCRA and CERCLA — both "continuous" releases and "emergency" releases. Those reporting provisions also give EPA authority to step in in an emergency and stop or clean up the nuisance. Several lawsuits from environmental and neighborhood groups in the past decade have used these provisions of CERCLA and EPCRA as a toehold for lawsuits. The livestock industry's drive to get the reporting exemption seems to be an effort to disable these last legal impediments.
But the CERCLA and EPCRA reporting requirements are also one of the only ways EPA will get informaton about the magnitude of the problem as it considers whether and how to regulate CAFO emissions under the Clean Air Act — something industry has managed to put off for years.