Factory Farms Take Federal Money, Refuse Disclosure of Pollution

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) yesterday announced plans to expand a program with the Department of Agriculture (USDA) that uses tax money to help factory farms capture their methane pollution and burn it for energy. Before EPA and USDA spend more money on factory farms, the very least these facilities can do is agree to tell us how much they are polluting. Big Agriculture has successfully fought an attempt to measure the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from these large factories, known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). With these giant livestock operations in position to reap financial rewards from climate change policies, the public needs to know what they are emitting in order to measure progress and ensure accountability.

A single factory farm can produce more waste than the human population of a large U.S. city. As the liquefied manure sits in putrid pools known, oddly, as lagoons, it emits prodigious amounts of methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 21 times more powerful at warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

Last year EPA created a registry that requires GHG emitters from a broad range of industries to track and report to EPA their yearly emissions. However, Congress responded to pressure from Big Ag and subsequently exempted CAFOs from having to report their emissions for at least another year.

The EPA has partnered with USDA to expand the "AgStar" program, which provides technical assistance and grant information to livestock farmers on how to install "anaerobic digesters," equipment that captures the methane from the manure. According to yesterday's announcement, "EPA and USDA's enhanced collaboration will provide up to $3.9 million over the next five years to help the farms overcome obstacles preventing them from recovering and using biogas." The AgStar Program claims "Since 2003, USDA Rural Development has awarded more than $40 million for anaerobic digestion systems."

The environmental damage from these livestock operations extends far beyond methane emissions. CAFOs pollute surface and drinking water with nitrates that are a leading cause of "dead zones" such as those in the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay; they are breeding grounds for Cryptosporidium and extra-virulent E. coli bacteria; and CAFOs are emitters of toxic hydrogen sulfide. Despite this, CAFOs do not have to report their toxic pollution to the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory and a "midnight regulation" finalized by the Bush administration exempts CAFOs from reporting hazardous air emissions from manure.

Making the most of a horrible situation is worthwhile. While these facilities continue to pollute, we might as well work to trap one of their pollutants and convert it to energy while reducing its global warming potential. However, it is galling to consider giving more taxpayer-funded assistance to such a heavily polluting industry that refuses to disclose its pollution.

USDA should require CAFOs that receive federal assistance track and report publicly all greenhouse gas emissions from their operations, including before the installation of the "digester" and continuing even after the facility ceases to receive the subsidy.

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