Skepticism turns to participation

SALEM, Ohio – Many people were skeptical two years ago when talk first rumbled about a joint effort between the EPA and farmers to look at air pollution.
Could farmers change their view of the EPA from regulator to partner? And how would they feel about opening their farms to scrutiny?
But last year, the EPA formalized its plan and offered farmers a deal: Let us monitor your farm’s air quality and we’ll protect you from pollution violations.
The goal was to collect air emissions data – how much is too much, how do hogs differ from dairy, how is a manure lagoon different from a deep pit – the kind of information that has been lacking in the livestock industry until now.
Despite those early hesitations, thousands of farmers across the country volunteered.
The EPA continues to sort through them, but this year it already has approved 1,008 agreements with swine, poultry and dairy operations.
Eighty-four of those agreements are with Ohio farms and 35 with Pennsylvania.
Penalties. Jose Van Wezel admits she hesitated at first.
The biggest concern centered on the word “penalty.”
Participating farms pay between a couple hundred dollars up to thousands of dollars, depending on the number of farms and size of their operations. Van Wezel worried that by paying the money and signing the agreement, she would be admitting to a violation her farm didn’t necessarily have.
In the end, though, Van Wezel signed the agreement and paid the $500 penalty for her 1,200-head dairy operation in Putnam County.
The EPA and agriculture actually have a lot in common, she said. They both want what’s best for the environment and this is one way to reach that goal, she said.
Plus, if rules are going to be made about air emissions, she wants research backing it up.
Swine producer Bryan Black agrees.
The public and government agencies hold the livestock industry to arbitrary standards, he said, but this research will have scientific data behind it.
The goal is to be proactive, said Black who signed an agreement and paid $200 for his family’s 300-sow farrow-to-finish operation in Fairfield County. If the agriculture industry is causing damage, Black wants to know so he can address it on his own farm.
Lawsuit safety. Van Wezel hears all about farms causing damage, whether it’s true or not.
Although she says relations with her community are good, she lives in northwestern Ohio where many new large dairies face criticism – and sometimes litigation – from neighbors.
She thinks of the EPA’s offer for safety from certain lawsuits as an “insurance policy” but said that wasn’t the only factor in her family’s decision to sign up.
Besides, she said, this research won’t change the minds of the most vocal concerned citizens and environmental groups.
Black, who serves as vice president of the National Pork Producers Council in addition to farming, echoed that the agreements are about more than just lawsuit protection.
Located in Canal Winchester, his farm sits in an area inundated with new neighbors.
“We want to coexist with them,” he said. “We want to be proactive on a personal level.”
Approval. Although more than a thousand agreements have been approved, only a handful of the farms actually will be monitored by the EPA. However, all of them will pay the penalty and receive safety from lawsuits.
That safety is not all-encompassing, though. EPA will still be able to prosecute cases that pose immediate danger to public health and the environment.
So far, 664 swine, 58 poultry and 286 dairy agreements have been approved nationally.
Monitoring should begin later this year, according to EPA spokesman Dave Ryan.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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