Washington, DC – As North Carolina communities grapple with the pollution from industrial pig, chicken, and turkey operations that flooded during Hurricane Florence, community groups and an allied national coalition filed a legal complaint in federal court late Friday challenging a Trump administration policy that unlawfully exempts industrial animal feeding operations from having to report toxic pollution under a federal emergency planning and right-to-know law.
In the wake of Hurricane Florence, the nation’s attention focused on the pork industry’s unsavory practice of storing toxic animal waste in open-air pits. That waste storage method poses a threat not just to drinking water -- when floodwaters inundate the pits, for example – but the toxic pollutants released from these pits also pose a grave risk to air quality. And these emissions are not just foul-smelling; they can be deadly.
“The full extent of the damage to our communities is still unknown. But one thing’s clear: we need better protections for communities neighboring these operations,” said Devon Hall, Executive Director of Duplin County, NC-based Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH). Duplin County, a hub of industrial pig operations, was among the hardest hit by Hurricane Florence. “Eliminating this exemption is a simple way to help make sure my neighbors and I are better protected, not just when a hurricane hits but from the day-in and day-out pollution we face.”
The Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued legal ‘guidance’ that seeks to flout an April 2017 federal court ruling and creates an unauthorized exemption in the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). The law requires polluters like factory farms to notify local communities and first responders when they threaten air and water quality. In spite of the deadly dangers posed by the ammonia and hydrogen sulfide from animal waste, including emissions from animal waste pits, and waste in animal confinement buildings, the Trump administration wants to exempt the nation’s largest animal operations from reporting the emissions of these air pollutants.
"The public has the right to know the amount of pollution in their communities, as well as the source," said Heather Deck, executive director of the North Carolina-based Sound Rivers. "Without this information, our state cannot begin to address the harm caused by industrial animal facilities to our state's water resources."
REACH and Sound Rivers are being represented by the nonprofit environmental law organization Earthjustice and are joined by Animal Legal Defense Fund, Center for Food Safety, Don’t Waste Arizona, Environmental Integrity Project, Food & Water Watch, Humane Society of the United States, Sierra Club, and Waterkeeper Alliance in the complaint.
“At the behest of greedy and powerful corporations, the Trump administration is trying to weaken a law designed to protect communities from hazardous chemicals – the same communities that bore the brunt of dangerous pollution emanating from industrial animal operations in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. We won’t stand by and let this lawbreaking and abuse endanger these and countless other communities across the country,” said Carrie Apfel, an attorney with Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food and Farming Program.
“We were hopeful that, after the Court’s 2017 ruling in Waterkeeper Alliance v. EPA, the agency would finally take action to address this serious problem, but instead the EPA is attempting to shield the industry from simply disclosing their pollution to the public," said Kelly Foster, Senior Attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance. “CAFOs are known to release hazardous pollutants that can pose serious risks of illness or death near homes, schools, businesses, and communities. It is EPA’s responsibility to protect the public by ensuring information about these releases is disclosed – not to keep devising new legal strategies to keep it secret.”
Under the exemption, the nation’s largest pig confinements, egg and dairy operations, chicken and turkey production facilities, and cattle feeding operations – known as concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs—would be exempt from reporting hazardous releases of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and other toxic air pollutants. Sudden exposure to these toxic emissions can be fatal: one study found that 19 workers at CAFOs were killed from hydrogen sulfide released during manure agitation. Chronic exposures to lower levels of these pollutants are also associated with a long list of health impacts, from headaches to respiratory irritation to nausea.
“This is the latest move to allow the meat industry to profit from dirty, polluting practices without accountability,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “It will endanger lives in rural communities where these facilities reside, and it threatens their own workers, who have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. This deregulatory move is toxic in more ways than one – and it is illegal as well.”
“There are around 40,000 hogs within four miles of my house,” says Rosemary Partridge, an Iowa farmer and Food & Water Watch member. “Our bedroom is about 175 feet from where some of this factory farm manure is spread, and the air pollution has severely harmed our health and quality of life. My husband has been diagnosed with C.O.P.D., which has worsened since the two factory farms nearest our home began operating. We need to know what toxic emissions we’re being exposed to.”
The reporting data is crucial for communities struggling with pollution from CAFOs. In one instance, a community in Ohio relied on emissions data reported by the state’s largest egg producer to address dangerously high concentrations of hazardous air pollutants released into a neighboring community, to help secure a $1.4 million settlement for local air pollution controls.
“The public and their physicians need the information about ammonia and hydrogen sulfide releases to determine the best ways to protect their health. People who live near these facilities are complaining of adverse health effects,” said Steve Brittle of Don’t Waste Arizona. Don’t Waste Arizona heads to trial later this month in a case filed against a large-scale egg production facility outside of Phoenix for failing to provide reports required under EPCRA informing residents about the massive quantities of ammonia emitted from the facility.
The facilities that benefit from the Trump administration’s pollution exemption are not small, independent farms. Instead, they include the nation’s largest meat and dairy production facilities, which share close ties with a handful of powerful corporations. For example, five multinational companies control 70 percent of U.S. meat production and processing – earning tens of billions of dollars each year. Each CAFO confines hundreds, thousands, or even millions of animals and generates a staggering quantity of urine and feces.
“It should surprise no one that the same animal factories that perpetually torment and confine billions of farm animals extend their disregard to neighbors, wildlife and habitats,” said Peter Brandt, Managing Attorney for Farm Animals for the Humane Society of the United States. “That EPA would prioritize the bottom line of multinationals over the health of children and the environment shows how far the agency has strayed from its purpose.”
“Animals confined on factory farms experience the same harmful effects of air emissions as neighboring residents and communities,” says Animal Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Stephen Wells. “The public has a right to know the truth about these animal factories, so they can work to protect themselves and the farmed animals they care about.”
“Toxic air emissions from concentrated animal feeding operations harm the health of community members living near these operations,” said Jane Williams, Chair of the Sierra Club's National Clean Air Team. “Common sense measures exist that can dramatically reduce these emissions; this is why we need to take action to gain more information about the magnitude and location of these emissions.”
“This law was meant to apply equally to all sources of industrial pollution,” said Abel Russ, Senior Attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project. “And it should apply equally. Ammonia and hydrogen sulfide are not less dangerous just because they come from an industrial livestock operation. EPA is following a very disturbing pattern of giving special treatment to its favorite industries. That is simply illegal.”
“EPA is charged with protecting public health, not defending the interests of corporate polluters,” said Ryan Talbott, Staff Attorney for the Center for Food Safety. “By allowing CAFOs to conceal their toxic air emissions, EPA is telling the communities impacted by these emissions that they don’t matter. This exemption only serves to benefit CAFOs and will prevent local communities from accessing information critical to protecting public health.”
A copy of the complaint can be found here.