EPA fails to develop tools to measure livestock air emissions

Donelle Eller

After 11 years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has failed to come up with the tools needed to measure whether large animal-feeding operations are exceeding federal air pollution standards, according to an EPA inspector general's report released this week.

That delay has left nearly 14,000 livestock facilities largely exempt from federal air emission oversight, and residents living near those facilities unprotected from harmful emissions that include ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, environmental groups say.

"It's another example that the EPA, through more than one administration, has really been afraid to take on the livestock industry," said Wally Taylor, an attorney for the Sierra Club's Iowa Chapter.

The EPA blamed the delays on problems with data collected through an industry-backed air-monitoring study and a "lack of expertise and resources" to develop the air-emission measurement methodologies, among other issues, according to the report.

Hogs occupy pens at a confinement facility in Ayrshire, Iowa, on Friday, Feb. 6, 2015. The facility is operated by New Fashion Pork, which is based out of Minnesota.

"EPA needs to finish this process," said Tarah Heinzen, an attorney at Food & Water Watch, a Washington, D.C., environmental group. "Either determine it cannot issue methodologies ... or come up with methodologies ... and bring this industry into compliance with" the Clean Air Act.

It's an important issue in Iowa, a national leader in hog, egg and cattle production.

Environmental groups have been fighting for greater state and federal oversight of the concentrated feeding operations.

Residents living near large confinements and feed lots complain about odor and flies, and fear nitrates from manure applied to crops will leave farm fields and pollute their drinking water.

On Sept. 18, 2017, the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission denied a petition that would have made it tougher for animal-feeding operations to be built in Iowa.

“This industry has too much power over the agencies tasked with protecting us, and people are sick of corporate ag calling the shots,” said Jess Mazour, organizer with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement.  

Comment from the Iowa Pork Producers and the Cattlemen's Association wasn't immediately available.

The Iowa Poultry Association said "maintaining good air quality is a priority for Iowa’s egg farmers," but it declined to comment on EPA's efforts until further decisions are made about how to measure animal feeding operation air emissions.

EPA estimates 18,000 large animal-feeding operations nationwide "potentially emit air pollutants in high-enough quantities to subject these facilities to (the) Clean Air Act," and other requirements.

Some facilities could be required to add emission controls, the report said.

Ammonia, one of the potentially harmful emission coming from livestock facilities, can cause severe cough and chronic lung disease, according to the report.

The EPA's efforts began in the late 1990s, when the agency recognized it lacked the data needed to measure animal-feeding operations' air emissions, the report said.

Measuring air emissions can be complex since they can come from several sources — such as confinements, manure storage facilities and fields applied with manure.

In 2005, the EPA and the livestock industry reached an agreement: Producers would fund an air-emissions study and the EPA would not sue participating livestock operations for clean air violations.

The air monitoring study, which cost $15 million, was completed in 2010, and EPA released an emission measurement draft in 2012.

But a scientific board said the study data wasn't strong enough to be broadly applied outside the study group, which included 27 facilities.

By 2013, the EPA halted most work on developing air-emission measuring tools, the report said.

"According to EPA managers, the agency in recent years did not have staff with combined expertise in agricultural emissions, air quality and statistical analysis," the EPA inspector general's office said.

"It's frustrating that EPA hasn’t hired the expertise needed to carry out its duties under bedrock environmental laws," especially since the livestock industry has "broad air and water pollution impacts," Heinzen said.

Taylor, the Sierra Club attorney, doubts the EPA lacks the expertise to measure livestock operation emissions.

"They can measure emissions from everything else," he said. "It's important that (the) EPA take this seriously."

The inspector general's report said several important EPA actions have been on hold pending air emission measurement tool development.

The EPA agreed to adopt the inspector general's recommendations.