Seeking data to enforce clean-air laws and possibly develop future regulations, the government on Friday told farms that generate huge amounts of animal waste they can escape potentially large fines if their air pollution is monitored.
WASHINGTON Seeking data to enforce clean-air laws and possibly develop future regulations, the government on Friday told farms that generate huge amounts of animal waste they can escape potentially large fines if their air pollution is monitored.
The offer by the Environmental Protection Agency is aimed at factory-style farms that process animals, particularly hog, chicken and egg operations.
By signing on, the farms, increasingly run by a concentrated few companies, agree to abide by clean air, hazardous waste and emergency reporting laws after the data is collected. They would pay $2,500 into an EPA fund and agree to let EPA-approved contractors monitor the air. The fund would pay for two years of air monitoring at 28 to 30 farms nationwide at a cost of up to $500,000 each.
Companies also would have to agree to pay a civil penalty of anywhere from $200 to $100,000, depending on the size and number of farms they operate. Those fines would cover presumed violations, past and present, and fend off potential liability four years into the future, when EPA expects to issue its air standards.
Without the deal, EPA officials said, the air standards probably would take a decade or more to complete.
"This is not a 'pay up and get out of jail free' pass," said Thomas V. Skinner, EPA's acting chief of enforcement. "What he hope is that this agreement will provide us the ability to ... avoid lengthy litigation and getting tied up in the courts, to avoid doing it on a case-by-base basis, facility by facility."
Skinner said the agency retains authority to take immediate action against any company if its operations pose an imminent or substantial threat to public health.
Environmentalists described EPA's offer as a "backroom deal" that will harm public health.
"Rural families have been suffering from this pollution for years, and now they will have to wait," said Ed Hopkins, environmental quality director for the Sierra Club. "This is an agreement of the polluters, by the polluters, and for the polluters."
Skinner said the deal will not affect state and local agencies' enforcement of their laws governing corporate farm operations. Critics, however, said many states have statutes that defer to federal regulations if they are less restrictive.
Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon said the agreement would have hindered his state's 1999 settlement in which Premium Standard Farms, the nation's second-largest hog producer, agreed to spend $25 million over five years on pollution-reducing technology.
"This should be a collaborative process between state and federal regulators to try to keep everybody on the same team," Nixon said. "It's clear to me this is an effort to give amnesty to big-time players."
EPA said it believes the offer will appeal to pork and some poultry producers. It began work on the deal after the National Academy of Sciences reported in 2002 that EPA needed to improve the way its estimates the air pollution from animal farms.
Pollutants to be monitored include soot and volatile organic compounds, as required by the Clean Air Act, and ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, as required by Superfund's emergency reporting provision.
Pork producers are being urged to enter the agreement by the industry group that represents them, the National Pork Producers Council. EPA worked with the council and with pork, egg and dairy groups to develop the compromise.
"I don't know when we'll ever be afforded this opportunity again to be invited to be a part of the process," said Dave Roper, an Idaho cattle and hog producer who chairs the council's environment committee.
EPA has settled two recent Clean Air Act cases involving animal feeding operations and has one continuing with Seaboard Corp., a $2 billion agribusiness and transportation company in Shawnee Mission, Kan. A Seabord spokesman declined to comment and referred questions to the pork council.
Associated Press Writer Libby Quaid contributed to this report.
Source: Associated Press