Lack of Information from Livestock Factories Hampers Emergency Response

When emergency responders get a 911 call about a noxious or chemical odor, the caller doesn’t know where the odor is coming from. They just know that something isn’t right. Is it a chemical spill from a vehicle accident? A facility release? Or something worse? The more information a responder has, the more effectively he or she can provide help.

Our laws are set up so that polluting facilities have to report their toxic releases to emergency responders. This way, responders aren’t left in the dark about possible threats in the community. But eight years ago, the EPA arbitrarily exempted industrial livestock facilities — which release an estimated 73 percent of the toxic ammonia pollution in the country — from these reporting requirements. Next week, the EPA will try to defend this controversial move in court, but it’s hard to imagine how the agency can support a decision that puts the health of the public and the lives of emergency responders at risk.

Toxic pollution from livestock factories, where manure is stored in cesspools and sprayed on fields, goes unreported. (“Factory Pig Farm,” Toto, CC BY-ND 2.0)

As a representative of some 4,500 emergency planning and preparedness agencies across the country, I can vouch for how critical it is for responders to have adequate and timely information about potential hazards in an area. When the EPA first proposed the exemption in 2007, we submitted official comments in opposition to the rule. Without reports on known toxic releases in a community, responders are deprived of key information that can help keep people safe in the event of emergency.

The toxic chemicals emitted from livestock factories are no different from hazardous chemicals that come from other sources, whether it’s a chemical spill, a traffic accident or even a terrorist attack. Livestock factories can emit thousands of pounds of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and other toxic chemicals that can cause both immediate and long-term damage to human health. Exposure to high concentrations of ammonia in the air burns the lungs, nose and respiratory tract. Because ammonia is toxic, widely used and available, it is of great concern to emergency planners and responders. Hydrogen sulfide gas is also toxic and can cause unconsciousness and death within hours of exposure.

First responders and neighbors need to know whether a report of chemical odor in the middle of the night is a facility experiencing a release or a transportation incident. These are radically different events demanding different response protocols and preparedness steps. Given the limits on resources in the smaller, typically rural communities where livestock factories are located, it is critical that everyone has information on the risks they will face if an incident occurs. With both of these chemicals, emergency responders and neighbors have been injured and killed because they were needlessly exposed to chemical releases without adequate information.

We cannot afford a laissez-faire attitude toward emergency planning and preparedness. Public information is a vital part of these efforts. No community should be put in a situation where it does not have adequate information to respond to an emergency. The timely and accurate reporting of harmful emissions will help keep everyone better informed, better prepared to respond to an emergency, and save lives.