Chicken and Hog Farms Measured for Air Pollution

Hog farmer Max Schmidt. Credit: Greg Allen, NPR. i i

Hog farmer Max Schmidt stands in front of sows being held in an outside pen at his farm in Elma, Iowa. Greg Allen, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Greg Allen, NPR
Hog farmer Max Schmidt. Credit: Greg Allen, NPR.

Hog farmer Max Schmidt stands in front of sows being held in an outside pen at his farm in Elma, Iowa.

Greg Allen, NPR

Hog farms are known for their odor. But so far, no one has paid much attention to whether these smells actually pollute the air. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency is testing chicken and hog farms for gases and particles that can make air harmful to breathe.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Federal environmental officials are starting to monitor a source of air pollution in that they largely ignored in the past: farms. As part of a legal settlement, the Environmental Protection Agency will test emissions on chicken and hog farms. Some environmental groups are challenging this agreement, saying it goes to easy on farming operations that are known polluters.

From Kansas City, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN: On Max Schmidt's farm, near Elma, Iowa, it's hog feeding time.

(Soundbite of hogs)

About 60 sows are jostling for grain in an outside pen. Schmidt runs a farrow to finish operation, raising pigs from birth to the slaughterhouse. Each year, he raises about 23,000 pigs. In a state where some producers market hundreds of thousands of pigs each year, Schmidt is only a mid-sized hog farm.

Even so, along with pigs, he also has a lot of manure--a bi-product he considers valuable, and uses to fertilize his corn and soybeans. He holds it in deep pits, under the buildings where the pigs are raised.

Mr. MAX SCHMIDT (Farmer): It's just like a huge basement underneath there, you can step inside here.

ALLEN: Schmidt leads the way into one of his hog containment buildings. It's a long, barn-like structure with several big ventilation fans. On this day--although it's below freezing outside--inside, it's warm and humid. No wonder, when you get a look at the 1,000 pigs that live here. The pigs, Schmidt points out, are all standing on slats.

MAX SCHMIDT: And if you look down through there, you can catch the light, you can see the manure down there, about six feet down, and there's probably about two feet of it under, it was pumped out last fall. And we're in a barn now, where these pigs are getting close to market. In the next two weeks, all of these pigs will be gone. The barn will be completely power washed, and we can clean this, you could eat off the floor when we're done.

ALLEN: Maybe so, but not now. To say there's a pungent odor in this barn would be a severe understatement. There's an old saying among farmers--they say it smells like money.

Odor is a big problem on hog farms, one that can have a dramatic impact on the quality of life in rural areas. But in recent years, researchers are paying increasing attention to the particulates and gasses that are also produced on hog farms.

Peter Thorne, a Professor of Environmental Health at the University of Iowa, says these emissions can pose a health risk. Particulates can include animal dander, bacteria, and viruses. And the danger posed by gases like hydrogen sulfite and ammonia is even more clear.

But while much is known about the dangers these substances pose to workers in industrial settings, Thorne says there's been much less research on how these emissions effect those who live near livestock operations.

Professor PETER THORNE (Professor of Environmental Health, University of Iowa): At these lower levels of exposure, such as we're talking about in the rural environment, they're likely to be more subtle--subtle neurological problems, some aggravation of lung, particularly in susceptible individuals such as young children, or people with asthma.

ALLEN: Thorne cites one study, showing that the incidence of asthma among children who live on hog farms is double that of children who don't live near hogs.

Rising concerns about how emissions from livestock operations might be affecting nearby communities have lead to a number of lawsuits in recent years. Farmers had been charged with violations of a Clean Air Act and Right to Know laws, requiring them to monitor and report emissions. But that's something that, up to now, few farmers have ever done.

To bring them into compliance, the EPA reached an agreement with poultry farmers, pork producers, and dairy operators that allows the government to begin monitoring emissions on farms. In return, while the study is going on, farmers can't be prosecuted for air pollution violations. That amnesty provision has angered some environmental groups.

Mr. ED HOPKINS (Sierra Club): This agreement is actually a fraud, because it won't result in compliance over the next few years.

ALLEN: Ed Hopkins is with the Sierra Club, one of the environmental groups that sued to block the agreement. Hopkins isn't opposed to the testing; it's being overseen by experts at Purdue University, and is expected to provide a database that will allow producers to estimate their emissions.

Hopkins is concerned about the open-ended amnesty period, which he suspects is part of a delaying action, aimed at postponing the day when livestock producers have to begin reporting on their farm's emissions.

Mr. HOPKINS: Two years from now, after these studies are done, I predict that the livestock industry will say to EPA, well, we didn't monitor enough farms. We don't really know exactly what the emissions are. We need to continue to study this, and we need to be continue, to exempt us from the law while you do study it.

And meanwhile, don't forget the livestock industry is lobbying in Congress today to get an exemption from the Public Right to Know law.

ALLEN: Cattle producers have not entered into the agreement with the EPA, and are strongly lobbying Congress for an exemption from environmental laws. And the agreement is far from popular, even among pork producers. It requires farmers to pay a fine, anywhere from $200 to $100,000, depending on the size of their operations. Fewer than 10 percent of the nation's 60,000 hog farmers has signed on. The EPA says that leaves the others, more than 50,000, open to potential prosecution.

(Soundbite of pigs)

ALLEN: Back on his farm near Elma, Iowa Farmer Max Schmidt is a strong supporter of the testing program. He says farmers need to come grips with a new reality: that like every other industry, they too must comply with environmental laws.

Mr. MAX SCHMIDT (Farmer): I don't think that we need to be given free reign any more than any other industry. We've all gotta be good citizens of this planet here. And, if indeed, we're contributing to it, let's find out what the problem is and then let's work to solve it.

ALLEN: The EPA hopes to begin testing on chicken and hog farms by the summer. In the meantime, environmental groups are back in court, asking a federal judge to set aside the agreement and to order the agency to immediately begin cracking down on all livestock producers and the emissions that come from their farms.

Greg Allen, NPR News.

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