Air pollution from animal waste pose a threat to the health and safety of people living in communities near large scale animal agriculture operations, and to the workers in these facilities. In addition, these emissions are contributing to climate breakdown, however they are rarely reported or mitigated in any meaningful way and now, thanks (actually no thanks) to Andrew Wheeler’s EPA administration the already insufficient reporting rules have been rolled back even further.
There are several ways in which animal agriculture contributes to air pollution, but this rule rollback specifically pertains to emissions from animal waste products. In Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) huge numbers of animals are kept in one place, often tens to hundreds of thousands, depending on the species and location. With such a huge quantity of animals housed in one location a whole lot of excrement is produced. This excrement is then kept in shit lagoons. These are so toxic that CAFO employees who have had the severe misfortune of falling in them have died. These lagoons release noxious gases, primarily ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, which are an enormous problem for the populations who live near these facilities, for the workers who work in these facilities, and for the animals themselves who are all stuck in this cycle of exploitation and pollution. Side note- when hurricanes, which are becoming stronger and more prevalent as a result of the climate crisis (which is in part caused by animal agriculture, because this whole cycle of exploitation is connected), happen to hit CAFOs the lagoons can overflow causing even more severe problems for local communities (a literal shitstorm if you will excuse the pun).
Reporting on emissions from animal waste has been required since the 1980’s under a law called the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). The Bush administration attempted to weaken EPCRA in 2008, but after years of legal battles, lawsuits filed by environmental advocates managed to get the reporting mandates back in place. In 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA, an increasingly ironic name these days) under the Trump administration decided that the air pollution reporting should be removed and proposed a new rule. When the Trump Administration signed the Fair Agricultural Reporting Method Act (FARM Act) in 2018 they rewrote part of the law pertaining to EPCRA. Now that the EPA has concluded their review period, the new rule proposed in 2017 has taken effect. It exempts animal agriculture operations from reporting pollution from animal waste. Environmental groups will again be sueing to try and maintain the requirements for industrial animal agribusiness to report emissions that impact human health, but in the meantime companies are free and clear to not report.
The greatest health risks from these emissions are for the workers who are in close regular contact with the noxious gases. Workers in CAFOs are often members of marginalized populations and have limited, if any, worker’s rights. Research published on the health effects of surrounding populations shows that it can lead to respiratory, immune, neurological illnesses, and more, especially in people with asthma, children, and the elderly. The locations CAFO’s are placed in are generally in communities of color leading to well founded concerns over environmental justice and environmental racism.
Groups praising the new exemption include lobbying and industry groups such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Milk Producers Federation, and National Pork Producers Council- all of whom would benefit financially from not having to report emissions. A side benefit for them is that it would be much more difficult to prove cases of workers or community members falling ill from exposure to harmful gases if there is not a record of the emissions. On the other side of the issue are the environmental and community groups who feel that the public living in proximity to these facilities has a right to know what is being put in the air they breathe. This is another in a long line of instances of industry groups, businesses, and their lobbyists winning out (hopefully just in the short term) over concerns about health and safety of people and the environment.