On July 26, 1989, five farm workers in one family died after consecutively entering a 10-foot deep liquid manure pit on their Michigan farm..... The farm owner's 28-year-old son descended into the pit on a ladder and made [a] repair. While climbing out, he was overcome by fumes and fell back into the pit. Subsequently, the owners' 15-year-old grandson, his 63-year-old cousin, his 37-year-old son, and the 65-year-old farm owner himself entered the pit and collapsed, each one having intended to rescue the others. The medical examiner cited methane asphyxiation as the cause of their deaths.
On June 26, 1989, a 31-year-old Ohio dairy farmer and his 33-year-old brother died when the farmer entered a liquid manure pit to unclog a pump intake pipe. The brother died in an attempted rescue. The coroner's ruling was drowning secondary to loss of consciousness from methane asphyxia.
On August 8, 1992, a 27-year-old employee of a Minnesota hog farm and his 46-year-old uncle, who co-owned the farm, died after entering an outdoor manure pit. The employee entered the pit to repair a pump and was overcome by fumes. The uncle died when he attempted to rescue his nephew. They were pronounced dead from hydrogen sulfide poisoning.
A press release from the Environmental Integrity Project notes that since 1992, at least seven people in Minnesota have died after exposure to hydrogen sulfide in animal waste pits.
Those fumes — and the toxic gases they contain, including methane, hydrogen sulfide, and ammonia — are no joke. You don't have to fall into a manure pit to know that, either; if you live by a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), or have ever been near one, the smell can invade nostrils as far as several miles away and should be evidence enough that you're inhaling whatever nasty stuff comes out of that facility.
CAFO neighbors and workers with long-term exposure to these gases experience such pleasant effects as respiratory problems, mood disorders, memory loss, permanent nervous system impairment, and death. (For more information on human health impacts, see this IATP report [PDF].) Across the country, CAFOs generate over 500 million tons of manure each year, three times more than all U.S. human residents. That's a whole lot of untreated shit spewing gases that can harm us (while other contaminants leach into our waterways).
So why does the EPA want to deny communities information about the toxic gases coming out of CAFOs, including the identities of the big emitters and the level of pollution they're emitting?
Oh, Big Meat. You and your buddies in Washington do like to keep us on our toes! First, it was an amendment offered by Senator Craig (R-ID) in 2005 that would have exempted CAFOs from air emissions reporting requirements under the Superfund and Community Right-to-Know laws. When that failed, there was the 2006 attempt by Reps. Blount (R-MO) and Hall (R-TX) to exempt manure from being considered a "hazardous substance" under the same laws. If successful, it would have eliminated reporting requirements and made it much more difficult for states to require that CAFOs clean up massive manure spills. But it failed.
And now this. The EPA's proposed change to the rules governing air emissions from CAFOs is nearly identical to Senator Craig's 2005 proposal, but conveniently bypasses those pesky debate and voting processes that bog down the legislative branch.
After the jump, I'll ask you to take action on this issue by going to this website and submitting a comment to the EPA before midnight on Thursday, March 27. (If you were one of the 40,000 people who submitted a comment on naturally-raised meat labeling, you know how simple it is... and how you get that warm, I-did-my-part-to-stick-it-to-the-Man feeling afterward.)
But first, let's dig into the pile for a bit of background. You may want to hold your breath until we're done.
Stinking to a new level
The proposed rule change is all the more depressing because the pollution-monitoring situation for CAFOs is already so pathetically lax. (Michele Merkel, a former EPA staff attorney who resigned in frustration over the agency's unwillingness to enforce pollution laws against CAFOs, sums it all up here [pdf]).
The Community Right-to-Know Act and the Superfund law require industrial polluters to report when they release toxic substances into the environment, and they give local governments and communities a legal tool to force polluters to clean it up. Over the past five years, says Merkel, the EPA has declined to enforce the laws against CAFOs even though they are defined in the law as industrial polluters.
Instead, EPA preferred to go the Bushies' favorite route: strike a deal with industry. Under the deal, which was announced in 2005, participating CAFOs agree to pay a small fine and let EPA monitor their air emissions if they're chosen (only a small number of participating facilities will actually be monitored). In exchange for this weak slap on the wrist, they get... wait for it... immunity from past and future violations of the Clean Air Act, Community Right-to-Know, and Superfund laws. No joke. In exchange for giving EPA the OK to collect emissions data — data that CAFOs were already required to report under the Clean Air Act — CAFOs get a get-out-of-jail free pass for years to come. (If you don't believe me — and it's hard to believe, I know — you can read the actual text of the agreement here [PDF]. EPA's promises not to sue participating CAFOs start on page 8.)
Needless to say, CAFOs are not exactly struggling under the yoke of air pollution regulation. Yet EPA proposes to reduce reporting requirements even further. All this while CAFOs continue to emit toxic gases at rates that equal or exceed those of the biggest U.S. industrial plants. Merkel offers the example of Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman, OR, whose 52,300 cow dairy spews over 5.6 million pounds of ammonia into the air each year. That's 75,000 pounds more than the nation's most polluting manufacturing plant.
I don't know about you, but if I lived next to that operation — or any CAFO — I'd want to know what my family was breathing. Under the proposed EPA rule change, that information will no longer be publicly available. And if we don't know, we can't hold anyone accountable. Right-to-know and Superfund have both been used by community groups seeking compensation for the impacts of CAFO pollution; if this change goes through, that avenue to justice will be closed.
Getting our hands dirty
That brings me to the action component. There are only two days left to submit comments to the EPA telling the agency that you strongly oppose this proposal. Comments are due by midnight on March 27-- that's Thursday. It's really easy, and the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has conveniently provided us with the following instructions and talking points for comments:
How to submit comments:
The proposed rule exempting animal waste air emissions is posted on the EPA website. Click on the link confusingly labeled "Comments on the proposed rule must be submitted through regulations.gov," which will get you to the page where you can submit comments. Don't worry about entering your organization or government agency if you don't have one or don't want to disclose.
YOU MUST BEGIN YOUR COMMENTS by noting that you're commenting on “EPA Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-SFUND-2007-0469.” Then write your heart out, or just paste in the talking points below (adding your own flair, of course.)
You can also submit comments by e-mail to. (include the EPA Docket ID No. in the subject heading AND the body of your e-mail).
Talking points for comments:
1. CAFOs emit significant amount of hazardous air emissions, including ammonia, methane and other volatile organic compounds. These emissions can threaten the health of rural residents and neighboring communities. EPA does not have the authority to deny rural residents and communities the protections of CERCLA and the Community-Right-to Know law.
2. CAFOs can take steps to reduce and control ammonia and other hazardous air emissions from animal waste. The CERCLA-EPCRA reporting requirements provide an incentive for CAFOs to improve their management of hazardous substances and include the cost of that control in their business plans. EPA should not ignore its legal duty to protect the public from hazardous air emissions for the special benefit of CAFOs.
3. EPA is well aware of the dangers posed by other on-farm sources of hazardous air emissions. EPA does not propose to change the reporting requirements for releases of hazardous substances to the air from any other source other than animal waste at farms. For example, releases of ammonia from ammonia tanks most still be reported. Ammonia releases from animal waste pose the same hazard to public health and the environment as releases from ammonia tanks. There is no legal, scientific, or rational basis for EPA’s decision to favor the CAFO industry with this exemption.
Photos courtesy of factoryfarm.org