Smells like a free ride: EPA wants to let CAFOs off on emissions reporting

In an excellent 2000 report titled "The Price We Pay for Corporate Hogs," researcher Marlene Halverson of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy recounts the following stories:

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," 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

10 Responsesto “Smells like a free ride: EPA wants to let CAFOs off on emissions reporting”

  1. Thank you for posting this. I just sent an email to the EPA.

    The link to the proposed rule exempting animal waste air emissions on the EPA website appears to be broken but this one is working (for now).

  2. Matt Shockey says:

    Comment to EPA sent! Thanks for the heads up.

    Out of curiosity, I know that CAFOs are horrible for the animals involved in all sorts of ways, but does anyone know what effect living in this sort of polluted air has on them? I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything about that aspect of their abuse.

    - Matt

  3. ExPat Chef says:

    Thanks for the detailed instructions. I submitted comment on this a week ago, and spent a long time searching for the way to do this since none of the other posts on various sites and newspapers gave the details or an exact link. I posted on it at EDB, but not with the clarity you did for submitting comment. Appreciate it!

  4. Erica says:

    Thanks for the instructions – I really appreciate posts that give me an action, no matter how small, to take!

  5. Jen says:

    Comment sent! Thanks for informing us of these preposterous changes

  6. Elanor says:

    The URL to the EPA website has been fixed. Here I am trying to make things easier, and I paste in the URL with a period at the end! If you tried it and got an error message, I apologize… and sorry to the RSS feeders who will have the post pop up again now.

  7. Debs says:

    Thanks for all this good information. I’ll put something up on my blog linking to this.

    CAFO meat is terrible for you anyway.

    Food Is Love

  8. MamaBird says:

    Thanks for the great info. I submitted my comments via email and will blog about this as well.

  9. Responding to Matt’s question of “…does anyone know what effect living in this sort of polluted air has on them?”

    The peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives published a collection of papers about the health impacts of CAFOs in early 2007. One of the articles is Health Effects of Airborne Exposures from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. The abstract gives a sense of the state of knowledge:

    Toxic gases, vapors, and particles are emitted from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) into the general environment. These include ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, malodorous vapors, and particles contaminated with a wide range of microorganisms. Little is known about the health risks of exposure to these agents for people living in the surrounding areas. Malodor is one of the predominant concerns, and there is evidence that psychophysiologic changes may occur as a result of exposure to malodorous compounds. There is a paucity of data regarding community adverse health effects related to low-level gas and particulate emissions. Most information comes from studies among workers in CAFO installations. Research over the last decades has shown that microbial exposures, especially endotoxin exposure, are related to deleterious respiratory health effects, of which cross-shift lung function decline and accelerated decline over time are the most pronounced effects. Studies in naïve subjects and workers have shown respiratory inflammatory responses related to the microbial load. This working group, which was part of the Conference on Environmental Health Impacts of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations: Anticipating Hazards—Searching for Solutions, concluded that there is a great need to evaluate health effects from exposures to the toxic gases, vapors, and particles emitted into the general environment by CAFOs. Research should focus not only on nuisance and odors but also on potential health effects from microbial exposures, concentrating on susceptible subgroups, especially asthmatic children and the elderly, since these exposures have been shown to be related to respiratory health effects among workers in CAFOs.

    The full article is available on-line for free (as are all Environmental Health Perspectives articles — your tax dollars at work).

  10. Marlene Halverson says:

    In response to Matt’s question about health impacts of CAFOs on pigs, please see the chapter “Pigs in the Pokey” in
    Also, please see (case sensitive) for information on health and well-being impacts of CAFOs on pigs, poultry, and cattle.  Here are a few paragraphs on pigs:
    “Morbidity rates for pigs in finishing facilities from porcine respiratory disease complex can be 30 to 70% in some herds, and mortality rates can be from 4 to 6 percent from this type of respiratory disease alone. Problems of industrialized finishing farms include onset of acute pneumonia in 16- to 20-week-old SEW pigs (Clark 1998). A high proportion of finishing hogs go to market with lung lesions/enzootic pneumonia and papular dermatitis (Davies et al. 1995). A lesser proportion goes to market with atrophic rhinitis and peritonitis.
    Lung lesions from poor air quality, as they seem not to cause sufficient production losses, appear to fall into the second category of welfare problems identified by Fraser, et al. (1997) (above, page 47):
    If the environment poses challenges for which the animal has no corresponding adaptation, the animal may have trouble functioning in its environment without showing it. Such may be the case with a pig in a polluted environment that develops lung damage without appearing to notice or mind.
    The high morbidity and mortality rates that appear to characterize industrial farming systems may seem grossly uneconomical. However, the economies of space gained by crowding and immobilizing farm animals are among the most significant economies contributing to the industrialization of livestock farming, as long as ways can be found to compensate for the stresses, such as continuous, low-level administration of antibiotics to control disease.”