U.S. EPA's nine-year effort to document air pollution at livestock operations is likely still many years from completion and unlikely to be as useful as industry and environmental groups had hoped.
Still incomplete is what EPA promised to do under a 2005 deal cut with livestock producers to identify air emissions for different types of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. The agency has said little about when the work will be done or when it will start three related regulatory tasks, according to sources outside EPA who track the issue closely.
The long wait for results is excruciating and frustrating for stakeholders.
"We just want them to come up with something," said Michael Formica, environmental counsel at the National Pork Producers Council.
CAFOs for dairy cattle, swine, poultry and other food animals hold thousands of large animals or hundreds of thousands of smaller animals.
Most of the regulatory focus has been on CAFOs' water pollution. But the CAFOs' barns, feedlots and manure storage areas also foul the air with ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds and other contaminants.
Animal waste accounts for about half of total natural and man-made ammonia in the United States, according to a 2003 National Research Council report. Those emissions are associated with health effects that range from throat irritation to major cardiovascular diseases and increased rates of morbidity. Many are also precursors to other air quality problems, such as smog and acid rain.
Environmentalists have long called on EPA to put in place Clean Air Act requirements subjecting CAFOs to the same air standards that apply to coal-fired power plants and other big industrial emitters.
"Without question they are a stationary source, they emit a lot of pollutants, and they should be getting permits," said Brent Newell, general counsel at the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, a California nonprofit that has battled the livestock industry over pollution in court in California.
But livestock producers say agricultural operations are more complicated than smokestack industries and more difficult to regulate. And even those pressing for strict CAFO regulation acknowledge that measuring exactly how much pollution is being caused by an individual operation and how that is affecting neighboring communities is a difficult task.
"One piece of why it's so difficult to regulate them is that they don't fit neatly into the boxes of the statutes that apply to other industrial sectors, like the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act," Earthjustice attorney Eve Gartner said. "There's not a smokestack you can measure, they're not a pipe where you can see what kind of water is being discharged."
EPA has historically approached the regulation of CAFO air emissions through right-to-know laws that require the public reporting of potentially harmful air emissions but that don't punish facilities for exceeding limits.
To help make it easier for livestock industries to comply with those laws, EPA announced an unprecedented agreement in 2005 with pork, dairy and egg producers in which the agency agreed not to sue CAFO operators for violating air pollution laws in exchange for the CAFOs funding a two-year air emissions study.
'More robust information' needed
EPA planned to develop emission-monitoring methodologies for different types of CAFO operations within 18 months of the study's completion. The idea was that individual CAFOs could use those emissions factors and easily calculate whether they're near reporting thresholds set by the right-to-know laws.
"We felt there was a need for more accurate and relevant data," said Jamie Jonker, vice president of sustainability and scientific affairs at the National Milk Producers Federation.
In all, EPA ratified 2,568 agreements with CAFOs, representing about 13,900 farms in 42 states. The farms represented more than 90 percent of the largest animal feeding operations in the country and comprised 1,856 swine, 468 dairy, 204 egg-laying and 40 broiler operations. The beef industry was involved in initial discussions but declined to participate because it felt that its operations were too different from the other livestock sectors, said Ashley McDonald, environmental counsel at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
EPA began the National Air Emissions Monitoring Study (NAEMS) in 2007 under the leadership of Purdue University. The study involved 25 swine, dairy and poultry farms in nine states. In January 2011, EPA released raw data that would be used to shape the emissions factors.
Environmentalists who complained that the study's sample size was too small nevertheless said that the data were a clear signal the agency needed to take more steps to regulate air emissions from CAFOs.
"Doing nothing is just not an option," said Tarah Heinzen, staff attorney at the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project and the author of a report finding that the NAEMS data showed CAFOs pollute in quantities large enough to trigger emissions reporting laws.
But EPA's science advisers last spring rejected the agency's first two drafts of emission monitoring methodologies: one for buildings at confined broiler operations and one for open manure lagoons and basins at swine and dairy facilities.
The emissions models have "limited" ability to predict emissions "beyond the small number of farms in the dataset," the panel said in an April 2013 letter to then-acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe. Pork and dairy groups also weighed in with concerns that EPA should not have combined their industries into one methodology.
"They assumed that a lagoon is a lagoon is a lagoon and manure is the same for all the animals," Formica said.
EPA acknowledged the concerns in a letter last July. That's the last stakeholders say they've heard from the agency about the process.
EPA declined to make anyone available for an interview on CAFO air emissions. In an emailed statement to Greenwire, the agency said it is reprocessing data from the study and trying to obtain data sets from other published studies that have collected similar information to NAEMS.
"Combined, the reprocessed and new datasets will help us respond to the [science advisory board's] recommendation that the agency develop more robust information to use in developing emission factors," the agency said. "EPA will make any emission factors available for public review and comment."
EPA is still working on addressing the issues raised by the science advisory board, according to Albert Heber, the lead Purdue researcher on the air monitoring study. The agency has asked him to rerun some calculations this summer to address a concern over the completeness of the data behind hourly and daily emissions averages.
"They definitely are still pushing forward on this. They're actively working on it," Heber said.
Heber said that since 2011, his research team has published about 30 out of an expected 100 papers analyzing the NAEMS data. The subjects of the studies include air emissions from broiler buildings in California, the characterization of ammonia at egg-laying houses, odor and emissions from dairy buildings, particulate matter from a dairy barn in Washington state, and the impact of farm management practices on emissions in poultry operations.
The NAEMS data show that no farms meet EPA's Clean Air Act threshold for particulate matter but that most large CAFOs will meet the ammonia reporting requirement under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), according to Heber. A few large CAFOs will have to report hydrogen sulfide emissions.
Heber is critical of the Environmental Integrity Project report, which he calls "irresponsible." He says the group assumed that concentrations of pollutants going into the barns were the same as those in nearby communities and that it looked at exhaust air coming out of buildings rather than what workers and animals were exposed to inside. He also defends the scope of NAEMS as a comprehensive look at sites that were representative of the livestock sectors as a whole, as well as the funding from the livestock industry, which some critics say tainted the data.
"I just want the truth about what the emissions are," he said. "I've defended that. I think I can defend that until the cows come home."
But when EPA will complete the process and what the final outcome will be is anyone's guess.
"I'm not sure what their goal is at this point," Formica said.
Other initiatives on hold?
In court arguments in 2007, two years after the agreement was put in place, EPA acknowledged that NAEMS and the emissions factors could take up to 20 to 30 years to complete, during which time the CAFOs that signed up for the agreement would continue to have immunity.
The change of the guard at the EPA administrator's office -- between Lisa Jackson's departure and Gina McCarthy's confirmation -- slowed the process further, Formica said. And the agency alienated livestock interests last year by releasing hundreds of pages of documents containing personal data of CAFO owners to environmental groups as part of a public information request.
"They turn around and release all this farm data, which creates a political nightmare for the administration," Formica said. "Had they not done that, it probably becomes more politically viable" to move forward more quickly with the NAEMS process.
The delays have raised questions over how relevant the emissions factors will be once they're done given improvements in livestock management practices and technologies since the data were originally gathered.
Still, Jonker of the National Milk Producers Federation said the dairy industry would rather have EPA take its time than rush through complicated emissions methodologies.
"I think what we want is for EPA to do a careful and thoughtful process on reviewing the data so that they come to the best conclusions based on what the data says," he said.
But some environmentalists are getting impatient.
"If they're not willing to do their job, the next step is to ask the courts to make them, to set a schedule and stick to it," said Jessica Culpepper, an attorney at Public Justice and the author of a petition to list CAFOs as a major emission source under the Clean Air Act.
According to environmentalists, the agency has decided to hold off on at least three other regulatory matters related to CAFO emissions until it has completed the NAEMS process.
The first is a promise the agency made to a federal court in 2010 that it would revisit a hot-button 2008 rule issued in the final days of the George W. Bush administration that exempted all CAFOs from reporting requirements under the federal Superfund law and all but the largest CAFOs from reporting requirements under EPCRA.
"What we do know from conversations from EPA, EPA's position is that it needs to complete that NAEMS process, that its view is that it has to complete that process before it can revise the rule. That really makes no sense in so many ways," said Earthjustice's Gartner, who earlier this month filed a Freedom of Information Act request with EPA seeking documents related to the agency's progress on the 2008 rule.
EPA is also waiting to decide on the petition to list CAFOs as a major source of pollution and a separate petition filed by environmentalists in 2011 to add ammonia as a criteria pollutant under the Clean Air Act. Approval of the petitions would set in motion the necessary actions to regulate CAFO emissions under the Clean Air Act.
"We have not gotten much of a response from EPA on it," said Hannah Connor, staff attorney at the Humane Society of the United States. "Every time we reach out to them to try to move the process along, they kind of fall back on the NAEMS process.'"
The Environmental Integrity Project's Heinzen said she recently sent the agency a Freedom of Information Act request for documents related to the petitions and the only records she received in response were emails she herself sent asking EPA about the petitions.
Patrick Parenteau, a professor at the Vermont Law School, said that he has some "sympathy" with EPA, which is in the midst of the rollout of a long-awaited rule stemming carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants.
"It's overwhelmed. It's politically under siege. Staff's being cut. The budget's being cut," he said. "There is an opportunity cost involved. If they're doing CAFOs, they're not doing carbon. Take your pick."
In the absence of federal regulations, states have put in a patchwork of regulations over CAFO emissions.
Some local air quality control districts in California, for example, have put in place permitting and emission reduction requirements. Minnesota requires large livestock facilities to have air emissions plans. Idaho requires dairies that meet a certain threshold in size to employ best management practices to reduce ammonia emissions.
Parenteau said that anything less than a Clean Air Act regulatory regime is not going to address the problem of pollutants from CAFOs.
"There's a clear pathway to eventually force EPA to regulate these sources," Parenteau said, "but the question is, what do you do in the meantime?"