EPA Stops Collecting Data on Pollutants Released from Farms

Published Aug 5, 2019

EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler exempted farms from reporting hazardous air emissions from animal waste.

What happened: EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler exempted farms from reporting hazardous air emissions from animal waste. Prior to this action, farms that emitted 100 pounds or more of ammonia or hydrogen sulfide per day into the air were required to report to local agencies.

Why it matters: By not collecting the data, scientists, political leaders, and concerned citizens are robbed of information that can help reduce or prevent serious health problems in nearby communities. In this case, lack of data collection may lead to increased exposure to ammonia or hydrogen sulfide from large farms causing serious health effects.

In June 2019, the EPA stopped the collection of valuable data on ammonia and hydrogen sulfide emissions from farms. The reporting data is used by emergency responders and includes options for reporting “continuous releases” if emissions occur on a more regular basis. The policy to halt data collection is also wildly unpopular with the American people. The EPA had previously posted a draft of the new rule, on forgoing hazardous waste emissions from farms, for public comment and received 87,473 comments, of which 99 percent were in opposition to the new rule. Because of high air emission thresholds, as governed by the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), these reporting rules practically only affect the largest of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

CAFOs are industrial-sized livestock operations and can house anywhere from hundreds to millions of animals. The animal waste is of such a large volume that is does not break down naturally and results in air emissions of over 168 gases, some of which are hazardous to human health, like ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and methane. The scientific literature contains evidence indicating a link between living near a CAFO and experiencing health effects, such as elevated blood pressure levels, impaired mental health, and respiratory issues, including elevated levels of asthma in children. It is also well documented that CAFOs are disproportionately likely to be located near low-income communities and communities of color.

When you do not collect data, you cannot manage a problem. Previous attempts by community groups try and compile the same data at the state level have been largely unsuccessful, meaning that without the EPA’s data, there is no mechanism in place to collect data on these emissions. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that living near CAFOs is associated with health effects, the EPA has restricted access to information on the levels and kinds of hazardous substances that CAFOs are emitting into the air. As a result, individuals and communities are ill equipped to protect themselves from one of the most potentially harmful impacts of factory farms.