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The state of North Carolina has nearly 2200 swine and 5700 poultry Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). While the overwhelming majority are concentrated in the eastern North Carolina, poultry CAFOs continue to crop up all over the state. It’s no secret that these industrial farms emit climate-warming pollutants like methane, ammonia, volatile organic compounds that are also classified as hazardous under the Clean Air Act.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that methane was a dangerous greenhouse gas and a significant contributor to climate change more than a decade ago. Although factory farms are among the biggest methane contributors, the industry was exempted from the regulations that established standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So, precisely how did this industry get a special dispensation under environmental laws that allow them to pollute with impunity?
The whole mess started nearly 25 years ago when farming began to be more industrialized and centralized. At the time, regulators admitted that they needed more data from the livestock industry in order to effectively monitor the emissions from those facilities. In 2005, the powerful industry used the opportunity to convince the EPA to sign on to an agreement that any air quality monitoring must be coupled with protections and enforcement. The EPA exempted CAFOs from two federal laws that require facilities to report emissions of hazardous substances that exceed set thresholds.
The exemption was supposed to be temporary and give the agency time to develop valid ways to measure emissions so it could better enforce clean air laws and protect the environment and public health. Big Ag agreed to use the time to come up with the procedure and data they needed to calculate factory farm air pollution. The whole process was slated to take five years. After that, the government would begin enforcing clean air laws.
More than a decade-and-a-half later, the EPA still hasn’t devised an official way to estimate farm emissions and the CAFOs continue to evade oversight and any meaningful enforcement of air pollution laws.
Last spring, the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network joined more 24 other regional and national environmental groups like the Public Justice Foundation and the Environmental Integrity Project to petition the the Biden administration and the EPA to enforce federal laws and regulate the industrialized swine and dairy farms as methane emitters under the Clean Air Act.
The outcome is particularly relevant to North Carolina, the third largest pork producer in the country after Iowa and Minnesota. But the petitioners represent more than 2.4 million people from coast to coast. They asked the administration to control hazardous emissions from industrial polluters like factory farms. It specifically asked the EPA to regulate industrial dairy and hog operations that liquify manure and confine at least 500 cows and 1,000 hogs without access to pasture.
“Truly clean and sustainable energy solutions, like wind and solar, combined with food production led by local family farmers will allow future generations to enjoy a livable climate and clean air and water,” wrote the petitioners.
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