The EPA says it's useless. Farm advocates call it burdensome. But a court has ordered the data be reported anyway.
Come May 1, dairy, hog and poultry farmers may have to start reporting air emissions data to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that the EPA has said it neither needs nor wants. Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly and other lawmakers have introduced a bill to permanently exempt such farms from that reporting requirement.
A court ruling set the deadline for animal feeding operations to report emissions of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide — both gases emitted as animal waste breaks down — if they rise above a certain level. Farms had been exempt from reporting such emissions since 2008 due to an EPA decision that though farms may be emitting the gases, which are considered pollutants, there wasn't anything practical that the EPA could do to reduce such emissions from farm operations.
The original requirement to report air emissions arises from two environmental laws designed to support emergency planning efforts. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, known by its acronym CERCLA, and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, called EPCRA, require entities to report releases of hazardous substances that rise above a certain threshold within a 24-hour period.
CERCLA, also known as Superfund, was passed in 1980, and EPCRA has been in effect since 1986. The laws' purpose is to help federal, state and local officials evaluate whether they need to take emergency actions to mitigate the effects of such releases, according to a page on the EPA's website discussing the reporting requirements under the two laws.
But the EPA doesn't believe there is anything practical that federal officials should do in response to emissions from animal feeding operations, like dairy or hog farms. In a rule the agency created in 2008, it stopped requiring small farmers to report air emissions, though CAFOs — concentrated animal feeding operations, such as dairy farms with 700 or more cows — still had to report under EPCRA.
That regulatory policy was overturned in April 2017 after environmental groups challenged it in court. If left in place, it would have saved farms more than a million hours and more than $60 million in costs over a decade, as well as saving the federal government roughly 160,000 hours and $8 million in related costs, the court acknowledged in its ruling.
An initial deadline for the EPA to start requiring reports was extended until May 1 of this year. Now, the National Milk Producers Federation and others in the agricultural industry are lobbying lawmakers to change the law to bring that exception back.
“CERCLA was never intended to be applied in this way to dairy farms,” the president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, Jim Mulhern, said in a press release from the industry group. “Congress needs to stipulate that this burdensome regulatory overreach serves no legitimate health or safety purpose, and needs to stop.”
Meanwhile, some farmers haven't been able to find much information to determine whether it'll affect them.
Andy and Janet Dague, Kewanna, raise about 250 milk cows on their family farm in southern Fulton County, collecting their cows' waste to use as fertilizer on their grain fields. The couple took over from Andy's grandparents, who bought the farm in the 1960s. Besides the cows and four dairy beef, the family has more than a dozen goats their 16-year-old daughter raises, plus some ponies and horses their children enter in the local 4-H fair.
They employ three or four people part-time, including another family member. Their day starts at 5 a.m., milking the cows and carrying out farm chores until about 10 a.m. Activity slows a bit until close to the afternoon milking, starting around 3 p.m. Chores might be wrapped up for the day around 7 p.m.
Because of their farm's relatively small size, the Dagues don't believe emissions from their cows' waste would rise to the threshold where reporting would be mandated.
"I tried to look up some information and there's not a whole lot out there," Andy Dague said. Existing regulations surrounding small farms like theirs are fairly minimal, he said, and don't amount to too much more than any self-employed business owner in the food industry would need to abide by.
The EPA itself gives no clear guidelines as to which farms must report air emissions.
The agency indicates in fact sheets that it can't flat-out say farms having, say, 600 dairy cows must report emissions — emissions depend not only on the number and type of animals, but on other factors like geographic location, environmental conditions and farm management practices. Furthermore, the EPA acknowledged "it will be challenging for farmers to estimate releases because there is no generally accepted methodology for estimating these emissions at this time." It provides links to several resources to help farmers estimate their own farms' emissions.
If a farm's normal function results in emissions over the threshold, the EPA allows for a once-a-year continuous emissions report, according to its fact sheets.
It states on its website that farmers aren't required to reduce emissions if they rise above the reportable threshold. The agency also doesn't require farmers to actually monitor their emissions — only that they provide reasonable estimates.
But since Congressional lawmakers including Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly have introduced a bill to permanently exempt farmers from CERCLA reporting requirements — the Fair Agriculture Reporting Method, or FARM Act — Andy Dague says he doesn't intend to stress about it.
"There's a lot of things talked about and you could worry yourself sick, and a lot of times they never materialize," he said. "... I don't know how they would even test that kind of thing."