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Here’s How Big Farms Got a Big Government Pass on Air Pollution

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Hogs feed in a pen in a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, on the Gary Sovereign farm, in Lawler, Iowa. October 2018Charlie Neibergall / AP PHOTO

This piece was originally published by the Center for Public Integrity.

On nice days, Elsie Herring can sink back into her porch rocking chair, enjoying the rural property that’s been in her family since 1891.

Other days, the wind carries a foul-smelling mist that chokes Herring and coats the pink siding of her home. It’s hog manure, part of life in North Carolina’s Duplin County, hog farm capital of the United States.

“It burns your eyes. You get this cough. You get this scratchy, itchy feeling in your throat,” said Herring, 72. “You feel like you want to throw up.”

Versions of this story are playing out in communities across the country: frustrated, worried residents suffering near hog operations in Iowa, dairy farms in Wisconsin, massive cattle operations in California and Texas. Problems have been building for decades as more of the eggs, meat and milk we consume—and sell overseas—are produced by a consolidating, industrialized farming system that puts the agriculture equivalent of factories next to people’s homes.

Experts say this poses health risks, ones disproportionately felt by Black, Hispanic and low-income Americans. But the pollutants wafting from these operations are largely unregulated by the federal government.

Under pressure to act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided in the late-1990s that to enact rules, it needed to know more about the extent of air pollution from animal farms. To get that, the agency struck what critics call a no-win deal: It gave most of the nation’s largest farms legal immunity, trading away a valuable enforcement tool and undercutting residents’ right to sue—all for air monitoring that experts warned at the time would produce worthless data.

This “safe harbor” period of immunity was supposed to last four years—but it’s been 14 and counting. The deal has not resulted in any regulation, nor has it produced any air pollution data experts consider worthwhile. Some think the whole thing was designed to fail.

The years of inaction spurred the EPA’s inspector general to sharply rebuke the agency in 2017— President Donald Trump’s first year in office—accusing it of mismanaging the program in ways that protected the industry, not the public. In response, the agency agreed to corrective action and pledged to get the effort back on track.

Under the industry-friendly Trump administration, however, the EPA has yet to live up to its pledge. A spokesperson said the agency has been delayed by technical and procedural problems, as well as a large volume of feedback from advisory groups and boards.

Researchers and environmental groups point out that the status quo keeps in place the EPA’s freeze on lawsuits and enforcement actions, benefiting animal farm operators while letting a potentially large amount of air pollution flow unchecked.

Even under the best-case scenario for those who bear the brunt of the pollution, safeguards remain years off.

“It’s just a nasty mess. I know they know this, but they still refuse to change or try to clean it up,” Herring said.

The EPA has recognized for decades the need to regulate air pollution from animal farms, which have grown larger and more geographically concentrated. Packing more animals into confined quarters has economic advantages. The disadvantages fall most heavily on the people living nearby, like Herring.

Her family lived in Duplin County long before the first large-scale animal feeding operations were built. Agriculture, though, has defined the area and the lives of the people there for two centuries. When the first official census was recorded in 1790, well into the era of cotton and tobacco, about a quarter of the people living in Duplin County were Black. All but three were enslaved.

In 1891, Herring’s grandfather, who was formerly enslaved, bought a single tract of land in the county. It was a momentous transaction.

“He lived to see slavery abolished, but Blacks just didn’t own land back in those days,” said Herring, whose relatives later purchased more property there and built several houses.

The first large hog farms were built near her family’s homes in the 1970s. The growth accelerated through the ’80s and ‘90s, when an interstate highway first cut through Duplin County, connecting locally produced meat with global markets and making some agriculture businesses here among the state’s most profitable enterprises. Farm animals far outnumber people: This county of just under 60,000 was home to almost 2 million hogs and pigs in 2017.

This growth has played out in a place with lower incomes and higher shares of Black and Hispanic residents than in North Carolina or the nation overall.

A similar boom, in similar places, has echoed across the country. Even as the total count of operations in the U.S. dropped, the number of animals increased.

Over the last 30 years, the typical dairy operation went from 80 milk cows to 1,300. The typical number of egg-laying chickens on a farm soared from 117,000 to 1.2 million. Hog sales at a typical site grew 40-fold.

Today, Duplin County and the surrounding region are brimming with large hog and chicken operations. Amid the rolling hills and swampy flat lands is an interlaced web of white and gray confinement barns that glint in the sun.

Their immense waste lagoons are often hidden from view. But they make their presence known with a stench that clings to the roof of the mouth. Herring said the smell is inescapable outside and inside her home.

“I burn incense or perfume candles to try to mask the odor, but it’s still coming in,” she said.

Air pollution from large animal farms can trigger or worsen asthma, allergies and other respiratory woes for nearby residents, health problems people here complain........

© Mother Jones

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