By Kitty Block and Sara Amundson
In an unlawful move, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has decided to exempt massive factory farms from reporting their toxic air emissions — released from animal waste created by these facilities — to state and local authorities. The rule, finalized last week, will leave American residents who live in rural areas surrounding factory farms in the dark about potentially dangerous air pollutants that these facilities could be discharging into their environment, posing a serious health hazard to them and their families.
Factory farms — also called CAFOs, or Confined Animal Feeding Operations — confine many hundreds or thousands of animals such as dairy cows or pigs, or millions of smaller animals such as chickens, on each of their properties, causing not only an incredible amount of suffering, but also a staggering amount of urine and feces. This waste emits a number of dangerous air pollutants, including ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, both toxic gases that can cause serious health problems like headaches, eye and nose irritation and severe respiratory problems. People living near factory farms have been documented as experiencing increased rates of these types of ailments and can even suffer premature death.
Federal law requires industrial polluters, including factory farms, to notify local communities and first responders when they threaten air and water quality. The EPA says that exempting massive factory farms from reporting toxic air emissions from animal waste will eliminate reporting requirements for industry, but it is clear that the agency is doing this mainly to pander to powerful lobbies (in this case meat, egg and milk corporations) with deep pockets — a pattern we have noted across other federal agencies in recent years, including the Department of the Interior and the U. S. Department of Agriculture. Factory farms already treat the animals in their care as mere commodities and they now have our government’s sanction to disregard human health as well.
The EPA’s action is also a disservice to small, independent farmers who work hard to raise their animals in ways that minimize environmental impact and animal suffering. Smaller operations like these are unlikely to emit hazardous substances at levels that trigger reporting requirements. On the other hand, these farmers, their families, and the animals they tend to, can also be among the victims of factory farming pollution, because they live in the same rural communities that will now be negatively affected by the changed reporting requirements.
This is not the first time the EPA has made such an overt move pandering to factory farms. In 2017, the HSUS, in coalition with numerous public interest groups, successfully defeated a Bush-era rule that created similar reporting exemptions. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit determined that rule was illegal, but shortly after the EPA sought to flout the court’s decision, issuing so-called “guidance” on its website that created a new exemption for factory farms from reporting emissions. We, along with other organizations represented by Earthjustice, are currently challenging this “guidance” in federal court.
More akin to big industrial operations than actual farms, CAFOs are responsible for a tremendous amount of animal suffering. It is estimated that each year more than nine billion animals are raised and killed at these facilities in the United States alone for meat, milk and eggs. The animals are often confined their whole lives to cages so small they can barely move. These massive facilities have also been responsible for disease outbreaks, like the highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreak in commercial poultry in 2014-15, which led to the killing of more than 48 million birds across 15 states in 223 facilities.
The last thing these enterprises, which operate with little regard for humans, animals and the environment, need is another free pass to continue polluting our air with no consequences. You can rest assured the HSUS will battle the new “guidance” and this rule in court. Our government should know better than to shield factory farms and the havoc they wreak.
Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.