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Air Quality Issues and Animal Agriculture: EPA's Air Compliance Agreement

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Abstract:

From an environmental quality standpoint, much of the interest in animal agriculture has focused on impacts on water resources, because animal waste, if not properly managed, can harm water quality through surface runoff, direct discharges, spills, and leaching into soil and groundwater. A more recent issue is the contribution of emissions from animal feeding operations (AFO), enterprises where animals are raised in confinement, to air pollution. AFOs can affect air quality through emissions of gases such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, hazardous air pollutants, and odor. These pollutants and compounds have a number of environmental and human health effects.

Agricultural operations that emit large quantities of air pollutants may be subject to Clean Air Act regulation. Further, some livestock operations also may be regulated under the release reporting requirements of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (Superfund) and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. Questions about the applicability of these laws to livestock and poultry operations have been controversial and have drawn congressional attention.

Enforcement of these federal environmental laws requires accurate measurement of emissions to determine whether regulated pollutants are emitted in quantities that exceed specified thresholds. Yet experts believe that existing data provide a poor basis for regulating and managing air emissions from AFOs. In an effort to collect scientifically credible data, in January 2005 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a plan that had been negotiated with segments of the animal agriculture industry. Called the Air Compliance Agreement, it is intended to produce air quality monitoring data on AFO emissions during a two-year study, while at the same time protecting participants through a "safe harbor" from liability under certain provisions of federal environmental laws. Participants will pay a civil penalty of about $500 per farm and will contribute $2,500 per farm for the monitoring program, which is expected to begin in 2007. Many producer groups support the agreement as essential to gathering valid data that are needed for decision making. However, critics, including environmentalists and state and local air quality officials, say that the Air Compliance Agreement will grant all participating animal producers a sweeping retrospective and prospective liability shield for violations of environmental laws, yet because fewer than three dozen farms will be monitored, it is too limited in scope to yield scientifically credible estimates of AFO emissions. Some industry groups have their own questions and reservations. Nearly 2,700 AFOs, representing more than 6,700 farms, signed up to participate in the agreement. In August 2006, EPA finished approving agreements with 2,568 AFOs.

This report reviews key issues associated with the Air Compliance Agreement. It will be updated as warranted by events. Background information on air emissions from poultry and livestock operations, relevant federal environmental laws and regulations, congressional interest, state activities, and research needs are discussed in CRS Report RL32948, Air Quality Issues and Animal Agriculture: A Primer.

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