CAFO air pollution crackdown?


I'm traveling in New Mexico this week, learning about its dairy industry, and thinking a fair bit about how we raise animals -- for milk and meat -- in the United States. Many of the people I've met so far on this trip live very near large dairies. Some of the people I hope to meet later run large dairies, or consult with them to help them be more efficient or environmentally-benign.

Dairies -- along with beef feedlots, hog farms and poultry barns -- have, on average, gotten a lot larger in the last 10-20 years. With increased size come increased impacts on the environment. And while some large animal facilities have good environmental records, a lot of them produce both air and water pollution that has the people who live by them worried.

Last month, a broad coalition of citizen groups petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to more strictly regulate a new pollutant: ammonia.  Some of these groups hail from southwest New Mexico, where 11 large dairies line the freeway in a region called "Dairy Row." I've been visiting with a few of the members of these groups on my trip.

People here are very concerned about water quality -- but they also complain about the smell. That's the ammonia.

Right now, the EPA uses the Clean Air Act to regulate 6 major pollutants, called "criteria" pollutants. They are:

  • Ozone
  • Particulates
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Nitrogen oxides
  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Lead

The petitioners want the EPA to consider ammonia as another criteria pollutant, which would subject it to regulation in much the same way these other six are regulated.

The largest source of ammonia in the United States, and what the petitioners are seeking to regulate, are concentrated animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs. When you get a lot of animals in one place, they produce a lot of manure. That manure is high in nitrogen, which reacts with hydrogen to form ammonia (NH3).

Cows on dairy row

Cows at a dairy on "Dairy Row" in southwest New Mexico. For more images of the cows and dairies in southwest New Mexico, check out our Facebook page.

Ammonia, which is mostly concentrated in rural areas surrounding CAFOs, smells pretty bad -- a hint at its caustic nature. Imagine going to a barn and smelling that manure smell, times 1000. Acute exposure to ammonia can also cause a number of health problems, including respiratory ailments, eye, nose, and throat irritation, cough, and chest irritation. Chronic exposure, such as that experienced by people who work at and around CAFOs, is less well studied. (See the PDF of the petition, pages 10-30, for more details on health effects.)

Basically, these petitioners are trying to use the Clean Air Act to get CAFOs to clean up their act. It's a strategy that hasn't worked all that well in the past -- a federal court just got knocked off an EPA effort to regulate CAFOs under the Clean Water Act.

It's often not very nice to live near an animal city. Especially when they don't take care of their waste in the same way that human cities do, with sewage treatment plants and the like. On the other hand, many people say dairymen, and other CAFO owners, are in a tight spot, encouraged by the economics of farming to grow and grow and grow -- to create cow compounds, or chicken clusters, or hog metropoli. And now many of them feel persecuted by the very people they feed.

The activists I've spoken with this week don't hate dairies, or farmers -- and not all of them want the dairies to move out of their town, either. Rather, they would like to see dairymen manages their cow colony's waste in a way that doesn't pollute. Some communities, like the ones in Texas I'm planning to visit later on my trip, welcome and encourage large dairies for the economic development they bring, and find that those benefits outweigh the costs of pollution.

I like milk. I like farms. I care a lot about agriculture and I don't want to see it get pushed out. It makes me sad that the agricultural community feels so persecuted by people advocating for health, clean air and water. I wish it wasn't so. 

So what's the solution? Another regulation, like this petition for ammonia as a Clean Air Act pollutant? That would likely force cow farms to cut down on emissions of ammonia. But what would its hidden costs be? Higher milk prices? Dairies leaving the United States and moving to Mexico? It's hard to know.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is HCN's online editor.

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