Along with producing most of the nation's pork, some 12,000 factory-style farms -- concentrated in Iowa, North Carolina, and a dozen other states -- create huge volumes of harmful air pollutants. Ammonia and hydrogen sulfide from pig waste have caused health problems ranging from asthma to neurological disorders.
The Environmental Protection Agency began cracking down on factory farm violations of the Clean Air Act in the final years of the Clinton administration, initiating three precedent-setting enforcement actions against Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).
But shortly after the Bush administration took over, the agency started to reverse course. Michele Merkel, the EPA staff attorney who led the first Clean Air case against a factory farm in 1999, says that she was instructed to stop looking for new factory farm violations of the Clean Air Act in January 2002. "My boss told me that orders had come from the political appointees higher up that I was not to initiate any new enforcement actions on CAFOs," she said.
Meanwhile, meatpacking and livestock industry lobbyists were regularly meeting with EPA officials behind closed doors to promote a different approach, according to documents obtained by environmentalists.
The result? By the end of the summer, EPA officials are expected to propose new rules that accede to the lobbyists' key request. Factory farms are likely to get at least another two years before they even have to begin trying to comply with air quality standards.
Football-field size holding pits
Factory-style hog farming started to be practiced widely in the 1980s, when family farmers accepted offers from major meatpacking companies, like Smithfield Foods and Premium Standard Farms, to build huge barns on their land for the companies' hogs.
Operations with more than 50,000 pigs increased their share of the pork market from 7 percent in 1988 to 51 percent in 2000. These giant farms dispose of hog wastes by pumping them into football-field-size holding pits. Environmental regulators have long recognized that these "lagoons" can cause severe water pollution, but only in the late 1990s did the EPA begin to focus on them as a source of air pollution.
Scientists estimate that animal wastes emit 5.8 million tons of ammonia into the air every year, more than half of U.S. ammonia emissions. In January, the American Public Health Association called for a moratorium on new factory farms, citing, among other problems, federal reports that link factory farm emissions to human health problems.
But the Bush administration has kept moving in the opposite direction. A June 11, 2002, letter from industry lobbyists to the EPA proposed what it described as a "safe harbor" agreement: It called for a halt to suing factory farms until a scientific study is conducted.
Since then, the EPA has drafted its own version, which closely mirrors the industry's proposal; the language is to be published in the Federal Register this summer and will then be open to public comment for 30 to 60 days. "The EPA has essentially been letting the industry write the law," said Barclay Rogers, a Sierra Club lawyer.
Amnesty from air pollution
If the proposal is adopted, factory farms will be free from such sanctions as the $350,000 fine and the installation of pollution control equipment that were imposed in the EPA's first case against Missouri-based Premium Standard Farms, the nation's second-largest hog producer.
Instead, farm operators that violate Clean Air standards would face no more than a one-time penalty of $200 to $1,000 per facility, with a cap at $100,000 for any company. The operators also would have to contribute $2,500 per facility for a two-year study of factory farms' effect on air quality. An industry-backed group is slated to oversee the research, using data from only about 17 farms.
Robert Kaplan, an EPA official, defends the proposal: "With the industry's cooperation, in two years we'll get results we can apply to thousands of farms instead of going after each farm individually."
But Merkel, the former EPA lawyer who now works at the Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy group, warns that the proposed research could extend well beyond the deadline. The EPA's proposal, she says, is an amnesty from air pollution laws that "could last for years and years."
This article first appeared in the July/August 2004 issue of Mother Jones.