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US: Deal Lets Big Farms Skirt Pollution Fines

by John HeilprinAssociated Press

The Bush administration will let thousands of factory-style farms escape severe penalties for fouling the air and water with animal excrement in exchange for data to help curb future pollution.

The Environmental Protection Agency has signed agreements with 2,681 animal feeding operations in the egg, chicken, turkey, dairy and hog industries. They would be exempt from having to pay potential fines of up to $27,500 a day for violations either in the past or over the next four years.

On Monday, the EPA said its Environmental Appeals Board had approved the first 20 of those agreements, selecting accords it thought were representative of the whole. EPA officials said those approvals set the stage for the remaining agreements to gain approval quickly.

The agreements include 10 swine-raising operations and 10 operations that raise egg-laying birds. The board said it determined that the agreements were consistent with the Clean Air Act, including its penalty provisions.

Jon Scholl, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson's agriculture adviser, said the agreements are the most efficient way of obtaining the data needed to determine whether the animal feeding operations are complying with federal air emission laws.

"This is a very important step," he said. "This really paves the way for the study process to begin."

The EPA said its consent agreements with the animal feeding operations will cover more than 6,700 farms in 42 states. Another 7,000 farms are covered through Tyson Foods Inc., but because contract growers are independent business owners, the company said only that it will gain the exemptions.

The participating farms range from relatively small dairy operations, with perhaps five dozen cows, to large hog and dairy operations with tens of thousands of animals. Randy Spronk, chairman of the National Pork Producers Council's environmental policy committee, said the agreements will allow the EPA "to use sound science to develop practical policies that work for pork producers of all sizes and types."

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.

By signing on, the farms 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 the EPA expects to issue its air standards.

Without the deal, the air standards probably would take a decade or more to complete, EPA officials said; with it, companies gain some certainty about the science used to set emissions policies. Granta Y. Nakayama, the EPA's assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance, called it "both good environmental policy and good business policy."

Already, environmentalists plan to file suit challenging the new consent arrangements.

"This decision is a great disservice for people who live around large factory farms," said Ed Hopkins, environmental quality director for the Sierra Club. "It basically gives these farms a free ride on the backs of the public. There's really nothing in this that holds the polluters accountable for the toxic air emissions they release."

EPA officials say they retain authority to take immediate action against any company if its operations pose an imminent or substantial threat to public health, and the deal won't affect state and local agencies' enforcement of their laws for corporate farm operations. The EPA has settled two recent Clean Air Act cases involving animal feeding operations.

The agency began work on the deal after the National Academy of Sciences reported in 2002 that the EPA needed to improve the way its estimates the air pollution from animal farms.
 



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