By the time this article appears in print, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hopefully will have promulgated a rule exempting most poultry and livestock farms from reporting air emissions that occur as a routine part of normal operations.

If the agency has promulgated such a rule, it will be the culmination of a four-year effort by the poultry industry to inject a little common sense into the nation's regulatory structure. By early 2004, it was clear that ambiguity in two of the nation's industrial environmental laws (known as CERCLA and EPCRA) had created the possibility that the federal courts could apply these laws to poultry operations. Some environmental activists in the early part of the decade began contending that the laws also applied to agricultural emissions, including ammonia that might be released from poultry houses.

Strictest laws invoked

That's right two of the nation's strongest environmental laws were going to be invoked to deal with the smells that occasionally come from grow-out houses. Never mind that academic studies showed the ammonia from those emissions had dissipated within 100 yards of the houses. Clearly, the heavy artillery was needed.

And, by the way, who would the industry report to if the law applied? The cumbersome, time-consuming reports would primarily go to local fire or emergency management departments, so that first-responders would know of the "hazardous" chemicals in poultry houses.

Petition initiated in 2004

Efforts to get EPA to clarify the matter without rulemaking had been exhausted by the end of 2004. So, in the summer of 2005, NTF, NCC and USPOULTRY petitioned EPA to exempt ammonia emissions from dry litter operations from CERCLA/EPCRA reporting. After much discussion within EPA, agency leaders decided reporting probably didn't make sense, and in late 2007, the agency published a proposed rule that would grant a reporting exemption. As of early October this year, EPA reportedly was hoping to publish some type of exemption by the end of the month.

If the agency did promulgate a rule, then four years of persistence would pay off. If not, it will bring one chapter of a major industry lobbying effort to a close. Either way, it underscores a major challenge the industry has been facing in Washington, and it is a challenge that will become only more daunting in the years ahead.

More data desired

As the public at large, and their representatives in Congress, become more disconnected from the way our food is produced, the danger of nonsensical rulemaking increases. One reason the rule might have been derailed is because of pressure from Capitol Hill. A House subcommittee conducted a hearing focused on a GAO study, which concluded that EPA does not have adequate information about air emissions from poultry and livestock farms and should gather more data.

Continue educational efforts

Grass-roots activism is the only way to inject common sense in Washington. One election may have just ended, but it's time to start preparing for the next. We must make our legislators understand the full impact of their actions on the farm, and the danger to the long-term viability of American food production. We cannot let their lack of understanding be the industry's undoing.