TUCKER, Ga. — Sixteen years ago, the animal agriculture industry entered into a voluntary Air Compliance Agreement (ACA) that had the stated goals of reducing air pollution, monitoring air emissions from farms that raise animals and promoting a national consensus on methods to estimate air emissions from these same farms.
The agreement required animal feeding operations to fund a study to monitor emissions from animal housing structures, manure storage facilities and manure treatment facilities. After finalizing the ACA, a study, titled the “National Air Emission Monitoring Study” or NAEMS, began collecting data at 25 farms that housed animals for agricultural production. This included broiler farms, table egg production farms, and dairy and swine farms.
The study began in 2007, and over a two-year period, collected process and emissions data for ammonia (NH3), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), total suspended particulate matter (TSP), particulate matter (PM) with aerodynamic diameters less than 10 micrometers (PM10), PM with aerodynamic diameters less than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
At the time the ACA was created, animal agriculture operations were required to adhere to the release notification requirements of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA).
The primary, and likely only, substances of concern were NH3 and H2S. These substances were generated during the natural breakdown of manure and the requirement to report was triggered if the volume emitted into the atmosphere exceeded 100 pounds daily. The main driver for the NAEMS was to collect emissions data that would facilitate the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) development of Emission Estimation Methodologies (EEMs) for NH3 and H2S for animal agriculture operations.
These emission estimates would provide farmers and ranchers with the information they needed to notify the National Response Center under the CERCLA law and state emergency response commissions under the EPCRA statute.
Fortunately, common sense eventually won the day in 2018 when a bi-partisan group of senators recognized that these type of farm emissions were never meant to be a part of the CERCLA notification provisions. After passing the “Fair Agricultural Reporting Methods (FARM) Act” in the 2018 Omnibus Bill, the reporting mandate was removed. Shortly after Congress passed the FARM Act, EPA evaluated the EPCRA statute and determined that the CERCLA reporting exemption extended the EPCRA reporting requirements. However, the longevity of the EPCRA reporting exemption is at risk, as it is currently being challenged by a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
In mid to late August of 2021, EPA announced they had published draft emission models for NH3, H2S and PM poultry operations. This included broiler farms and layer farms as well. These draft models follow draft models for the swine industry that were published a year earlier. A review of EPA’s website that provides information pertaining to the NAEMS study indicates similar draft models for dairy farms will be published in March of 2022, and in May of 2022, draft models for the emission of VOCs for all animal groups will published.
Will this close the book?
The question is, if EPA meets the published timeline, will this close the book on what will be a 17-year process to develop methodologies to estimate emissions from animal agriculture operations and how will they be used — if at all?
To a lesser extent, the NAEMS was meant to inform farmers and ranchers if their emissions would trigger certain Clean Air Act permitting requirements for PM and VOCs. This point was reiterated in a fact sheet released by EPA shortly after the agency announced the release of the draft emission models for the poultry and layer operations.
Because of the current CERCLA and EPCRA reporting exemptions, the fact sheet did not mention the emission of ammonia or hydrogen sulfide. However, differing ideologies of administrations and each state’s authority to develop more stringent permitting programs could pull the emission of these substances into a regulatory framework. An example of this is Maryland’s General Discharge Permit for Animal Feeding Operations.
Under their authority to issue National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Permits delegated to them by EPA, the Maryland Department of the Environment included “gaseous substances” within the definition of a “pollutant.” This point led to a recent court decision that ruled the emission of ammonia from poultry houses requires a Maryland discharge permit, because the ammonia eventually settles to the ground and potentially a waterway regulated by the Clean Water Act.
The current administration is experiencing renewed pressure to regulate Confined Animal Feeding Operations through the Clean Air Act. While ammonia is not listed as a “criteria air pollutant” that has long been regulated under the Clean Air Act, numerous petitions have been filed by various groups soliciting EPA to regulate it as one. So far, EPA has declined to respond positively to those petitions, but it might only be a matter of time before they do.
Poultry and egg farmers play an important role in helping to close this chapter.
They need to be mindful of the variables that contribute to the generation of ammonia, and they should continually review and, when necessary, revise their poultry house management strategies and litter management plans. Controlling environmental conditions like humidity and temperature in the house are key aspects of controlling the generation of ammonia. Controlling the moisture content of litter and using litter amendments to control pH can also help reduce ammonia generation.
While we seem close to closing the chapter on regulating emissions from poultry farms, it would only take a decision rendered by a court or a change of ideology to reopen the subject.
This highlights the importance of the industry’s need to remain diligent in not only reducing the generation of these substances but also mitigating their potential impacts.
Paul Bredwell is executive vice president of regulatory programs with the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association based in Tucker, Ga. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.