Photo courtesy of U.S. Senate
A U.S. Senate committee took testimony on a bill Thursday that supporters say offers a bipartisan compromise on reporting manure emissions.
The legislation would exempt farms from a law spawned by careless handling of industrial waste in the 1970s. The bill, however, leaves open the possibility that producers will someday have to report the volume of gases released by livestock under a different law inspired by the 1984 chemical leak in Bopal, India, that killed up to 20,000 people.
Farm groups had sought to exempt producers from both laws, commonly referred to by their acronyms, CERCLA and EPCRA.
“That was unpalatable to Senate Democrats,” said Scott Yager, chief environmental counsel for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “Their hangup was the EPCRA piece.”
The Environmental Protection Agency has, under the George W. Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, sought to exclude agriculture from CERCLA and EPCRA.
CERCLA mandates reporting chemical leaks to federal authorities, while EPCRA requires providing the same information to local and state emergency officials.
The EPA asserted in 2008 that telling emergency responders, federal or local, that decaying manure was releasing gas was a useless exercise. Environmental groups convinced the D.C. Circuit Court that the EPA was wrong.
The CERCLA exemption for agriculture will end when the D.C. court finalizes its order, which could be as soon as May 1.
The EPA maintains the court’s ruling didn’t apply to EPRCA, a position environmental groups are challenging. EPA says it intends to write a rule to clarify whether EPCRA covers animal waste.
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s top-ranking Democrat, Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, said keeping EPCRA as an option to collect information on livestock operations was critical for Democrats.
“This bill seeks to strike a balance and as a result enjoys broad bipartisan support,” he said. “My hope is that that broad support can be translated into prompt legislative action.”
If Congress doesn’t act on CERCLA, an estimated 200,000 farms will have to report to the Coast Guard that their animals continuously release at least 100 pounds of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide a day.
The EPA says there is no standard way to calculate emissions. The agency advises producers to make estimates based on limited research that may or may not fit their operations. Farms that fail to comply with CERCLA could be fined or sued by citizens groups.
Yager said that if farms must report manure emissions to the Coast Guard, detailed information about operations nationwide would be easily accessible by environmental groups.
“If you had to choose one or other, you’d rather have EPCRA because it doesn’t create a national clearinghouse,” he said.
South Dakota rancher Todd Mortenson told senators there is no practical way to calculate manure emissions from the 1,295 cattle on his 19,000-acre ranch.
He said a lot of ranchers don’t know about the upcoming mandate to report. “The anger in the country will be tremendous,” he said. “They’re not going to be happy, to say the least, to be labeled polluters, when all they’re doing is the same agriculture that’s been going on in this country for hundreds of years. You know, grazing cattle.”
The bill has 21 Republican and 12 Democratic co-sponsors. “That’s a really strong signal that the bill has legs,” Yager said.
Support for the bill was not unanimous. Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, agreed it would be absurd to register manure emissions from cattle on pastures, but said confined animal feeding operations are serious health hazards should have to report emissions.
Booker got support from Mark Kuhn, a county supervisor in Floyd County, Iowa. Kuhn said a large hog farm in the county has caused problems for neighbors. “I think (the Senate bill) is a step backward,” he said.
Under CERCLA, farmers would have to report manure emissions, but there would be no requirement to reduce emissions.
Yager said the disputes between farms and neighbors are unrelated to CERCLA. “That’s a zoning issue,” he said.