Washington Environmentalists say they are alarmed by an agriculture industry proposal to give factory-style farms a two-year break from air quality and toxic waste cleanup laws if they take part in a planned $11 million research program.
Environmental Protection Agency officials said Tuesday the negotiations with industry were only meant to address concerns raised by the National Academy of Sciences last year about the difficulty of measuring emissions from animal feeding operations.
The academy's report faulted EPA's system for measuring emissions from manure of animals such as pigs, beef and dairy cattle and poultry, and it said the lack of certainty mades it hard for government regulators to do their jobs.
The Sierra Club circulated a statement Monday saying the Bush administration was having closed-door meetings with livestock and poultry industry officials to exempt them from government lawsuits and clean-air laws. The stench and waste from corporate farms has increasingly become an issue as it has irritated neighboring communities.
"Exempting animal factories from basic environmental laws like the Clean Air Act would quite simply put thousands of communities at risk," said Brent Newell, a Sierra Club attorney.
The club also released a copy of a nearly year-old confidential memo to EPA officials from Washington-based agriculture lobbyist John Thorne proposing two years of industry-paid research -- estimated to cost about $11 million -- into the science behind air emissions monitoring.
During that time, Thorne said, EPA could provide immunity or "safe harbor protection" from government lawsuits to the several thousand farms expected to participate in the planned research.
J.P. Suarez, EPA's enforcement chief, said an immunity deal with industry could be accomplished by having EPA agree not to sue industry groups during the two years of research, though any agreement would require animal feeding operations to eventually comply with clean air and Superfund laws.
"We would gather data and at the end of the day we would evaluate which farms would be subject to the Clean Air Act," Suarez said.
Thorne, who represents many of the largest agricultural groups, said the impetus for the proposal was to better understand the science of monitoring for nitrous oxide, soot and volatile organic compounds, as required by the Clean Air Act, and for ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, as required by Superfund's emergency reporting provision.
"The main reason for the whole discussion with EPA is research. We're not talking about a permanent exemption from the laws. All we're asking for is that no one can take the data we're paying to generate and use it against us," Thorne said.
He said the goal is to clarify which farms must comply with the laws.
But giving the industry immunity isn't a good idea, wrote Bill Becker, who heads a group representing state and local air pollution program administrators and control officials, in a letter to EPA Administrator Christie Whitman last month.
Becker told Whitman it would "impede the ability of states and localities to address agricultural air emissions, and also set troubling precedent in air quality legislation."