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EPA issues new rules on livestock waste

(Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2002 -- CropChoice news) -- Washington Post: The Bush administration yesterday announced final rules for regulating livestock waste runoff from major factory-style farms that officials say will prevent billions of pounds of health-threatening pollutants from annually entering lakes and streams.

The new Environmental Protection Agency rules, issued to meet a court-imposed deadline, will require all major concentrated feeding operations to obtain government permits to regulate more strictly water contamination by animal manure and waste. EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman hailed the regulations as a "historic step forward in our efforts to make America's waters cleaner and purer," but without harming the agriculture industry.

Officials say the rule targets the 15,500 livestock operations across the country that are responsible for about 60 percent of the waste runoff. But critics say the regulation originally drafted during the Clinton administration has been weakened, reducing by more than half the number of companies that must submit to regulations; giving livestock producers substantial authority to draft their own anti-pollution management plans; and relieving major corporations of financial liability for illegal spills by their growers or subcontractors.

Critics also said the new rule is deficient because it doesn't require industry to adopt modern technology for combating pollution and because it doesn't require the monitoring of ground water to detect the effects of the waste runoff.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) called the rule "a muddled result, without a clear path to a cleaner environment." He added: "Unfortunately, the EPA ducked its responsibility to hold large agribusiness firms responsible for environmental damage from manure."

"The final rule puts polluters first," said Melanie Shepherdson, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The Bush EPA gave agribusiness increased protection from liability for polluting our waterways. It's a sweet deal for factory farm polluters, but it stinks for the rest of us."

Livestock waste has become a major environmental concern due in large part to the trend toward large "confined animal feeding operations," in which animals spend their lives in metal sheds. Large-scale animal factories, which raise thousands of animals and produce 220 billion gallons of liquefied manure each year, now dominate animal production across the country.

These large-scale operations routinely apply liquid waste -- including ammonia, pathogens, pesticides and antibiotics -- on land, which runs off into surface water, killing fish, spreading disease and contaminating supplies of drinking water. The waste also emits toxic fumes into the air.

Industry officials said the new regulations would draw thousands more swine, poultry and cattle farms into the EPA regulatory process, but they expressed relief that they will not be held liable for the waste their animals produce. That liability concept is one that Maryland had led the nation in codifying, by requiring large poultry companies such as Tyson Foods Inc., Perdue Farms Inc. and Allen Foods Inc. to ensure the proper disposal of the manure created by the millions of birds they hire farmers to raise each year.

Although the regulation drafted under the Clinton administration would have imposed a new "co-permitting" system, which would have made growers and poultry companies jointly liable for how the waste is handled, the regulation issued yesterday does not.

The other requirements, which call for more tracking of animal waste and reporting annually on how it is disposed of, are currently being followed by many animal farmers, according to industry officials.

Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said the new rules "are workable and are compatible with the environmental initiatives authorized in the 2002 farm bill." Dave Roper, president of the National Pork Producers Council, said that while the Bush administration tried to develop a rule that is affordable, achievable and science-based, "The new rule will add significant compliance costs, new responsibilities and additional public oversight and legal risks to pork producers."

The new rules are likely to add an estimated $335 million per year to the industry's operating costs, down from the $980 million estimated under the original Clinton administration proposal, according to the EPA. But even those diminished costs are likely to be offset by huge subsidies for farmers contained in the farm legislation approved by Congress this year.

Currently, 4,500 operations are covered by permits. Under the new rule, the EPA and the Department of Agriculture, which jointly developed the measure, expect that up to 11,000 more facilities will be required to apply for permits by 2006.

According to the EPA, the new rule eventually will result in a 25 percent reduction in the amount of phosphorus, nitrogen and metals that are released into the environment by animal factories.

The court-ordered deadline for the rule stems from a suit brought against the EPA in 1989 by the Natural Resources Defense Council.