For generations, U.S. meat and egg producers joked about the earthy aromas emanating from their farms.
“That’s what money smells like out here,” they’d say to city slickers who raised a stink about the odor.
As the livestock and poultry sectors industrialized, however, that homey line lost its punch, and for good reason.
Waste. Today, animal agriculture accounts for 500 million tons of manure – triple the amount of human waste generated in America – each year and nearly 80 percent of all ammonia emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Even as the smelly problem grew, EPA enforcement of the Clean Air Act in agriculture dwindled.
Critics note that EPA mostly abandoned enforcement in 2002 after the White House intervened on behalf of agbiz buddies.
Key players. On Jan. 31, however, the EPA and key players in the dairy, egg, broiler and pork industry formalized a solution to address the smelly problem: We’ll study it for two years to see if the Clean Air Act actually applies to animal agriculture.
The deal, formally titled the Air Quality Compliance Agreement, is as sweet as the country air is sour.
In simple terms, meat, milk and egg producers can voluntarily pay EPA $2,500 to help fund a two-year air monitoring study of “animal feeding operations.”
Benchmark. The study will be EPA’s benchmark for future Clean Air Act enforcement.
In return for the cash, EPA will grant amnesty to each entity that signs a consent agreement against most past and future (through at least 2007) federal and state clean air violations and civil lawsuits.
The deal was worked out by reps from the National Pork Producers Council, the Egg Board and dairy and broiler industry – the same entities whose members have the most to lose if EPA uses the Clean Air Act to go after farmers.
Of course, these same folks – like giant pork and poultry integrators Tyson Foods, Smithfield and Premium Standard Farms – have the most to gain from the amnesty while the study determines what air quality problems exist down on the integrated farm.
Coming forward. “Yes, on first take it would appear so,” says Kirk Ferrell, vice president of public policy at the National Pork Producers Council in Washington, D.C. “But look, the pork and poultry industry has come forward to get this issue resolved.
“And,” he adds, “we’ve agreed to pay for it and we’re willing to live by the results of the monitoring. That’s good for everyone.”
And it is – if the two-year air quality study actually shows the Clean Air Act should be applied to animal agriculture.
“We don’t know that it does,” explains Tom Skinner, EPA’s acting assistant for enforcement and compliance, “thus the study.”
Other side. Others disagree.
“The Clean Air Act applies,” says Michele Merkel, a former lawyer at EPA and now senior counsel at the Environment Integrity Project in Washington, D.C.
“This is just more stalling by EPA and livestock integrators.”
If so, it’s cheap – at least for the pork giants.
What about pork? According to both the National Pork Producers and the National Pork Board, $5 million to $7 million of pork checkoff funds will underwrite pork’s share of the study.
In effect, says Carrie Tengman, director of environmental services at the Pork Board, pork producers who sign the consent agreement will have their $2,500 EPA fee covered by the checkoff.
The cash, she explains, will pay for all the monitoring equipment and all the “24/7 monitoring” in the two-year study.
Purdue University, she adds, will act as EPA’s “independent monitoring contractor” to develop pork’s plan for the study (on four, “maybe more,” pork farms) and collate the collected data.
All this is news to EPA.
“We have no knowledge of pork’s plan,” says an agency spokesperson, “nor do we have any signed contracts.”
Ninety days. Even so, the overall plan is in place and farmers have 90 days from Jan. 31 to sign on the dotted line and get a pass on past and future EPA enforcement actions.
And, says one critic of the cash-for-amnesty plan, provide two more years of priceless cover to the corporate integrators responsible for most of ag’s smelly problem.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at email@example.com.)