Living a half-mile downwind from 12,000 hogs has been hard on Sharlene Merk, of Audubon, Iowa. It's beyond smelly; it's a health hazard, says Mrs. Merk, a longtime farmer who, with her husband, once raised hogs.
Ammonia and hydrogen sulfide fumes are a natural byproduct of the animal farms that supply America's meat. But as farms expand - some housing close to 100,000 livestock - so have concerns about air quality and the impact on people nearby. Studies near bigger farms, for example, have documented high rates of respiratory illness in the human population.
With the rise of so-called factory farms, pressure has increased to regulate animal operations like any other industry.
Now the Environmental Protection Agency, in an early signal of the Bush administration's second-term environmental policy, has taken a step in that direction that critics say is two steps back.
The EPA has offered the poultry, pork, and dairy industries a deal: Submit to voluntary air emissions tests and likely future regulation in return for years of legal immunity from the federal Clean Air Act. The agency says this partnership will help it protect the public interest in the most efficient way, by enlisting industry support.
But the agreement is drawing fire from environmentalists and state regulators, who say it could stifle pollution control efforts under way in states.
"[The EPA] is basically backing off on enforcement," says Ed Hopkins, environmental quality director for the Sierra Club. "These facilities are very large polluters, and this agreement gives them an enforcement amnesty until more research is done."
Companies that sign on will pay a one-time civil penalty ranging from $200 to $100,000 depending on their size; a maximum of 28 facilities, perhaps fewer, will be tested for air emissions over a two-year period. All participants would be given immunity for any past or present air-quality violations.
The deal cajoles business to the regulatory bargaining table with the lure of collaborative policymaking and legal amnesty. The meat industry is in fact taking a lead role, crafting many of the agreement's core elements, paying for and helping to direct a government study that could ultimately lead to regulation.
But this partnership stalls attempts to clean up the industry, argue environmental groups and state regulators. They worry that the legal immunity will make it harder to hold some 15,500 large farms across the US - so-called "concentrated animal feeding operations" - accountable.
The Sierra Club, for example, has led a legal action against Tyson Foods, which resulted last month in a settlement in which the company agreed to pay $500,000 to study ammonia emissions at two Kentucky poultry plants, and an undisclosed amount to three nearby residents for alleged air-quality damages.
State regulators, for their part, say the deal's legal-immunity provision could erode their own efforts to rein in factory farm pollution. California, Colorado, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, and Oklahoma have all developed their own programs to regulate emissions from animal facilities. States are allowed to impose tougher rules than the federal government, but the EPA agreement could put political pressure on regulators in farm states to tread lightly.
"State and local regulators are steamed because it's going to undermine their ability to regulate these air pollution emissions, these health threats," says William Becker, executive director of the State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators, and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials.
The plan, now in a 30-day public comment period, comes after years of discussion within the EPA and the industry. Following a few high-profile enforcement actions by the Clinton administration and rising citizen lawsuits, the industry sought a cooperative approach to regulation.
EPA officials say the new agreement is an efficient means of gaining the industry's participation. Traditional enforcement actions can take years of court battles and, even when successful, don't necessarily change industrywide behavior, says agency spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman. "If you can get everyone to come into compliance at the same time, more people benefit."
Critics say the program is too cooperative. Among their complaints: The industry has helped design the air monitoring program and will be funding and steering the review of data, compromising scientific independence. The plan calls for a nonprofit industry umbrella group, using the program's funds, to develop monitoring procedures and pay for scientific review.
"All along [EPA has] had the authority under the Clean Air Act to gather the kind of data they need to determine emissions levels," says Michele Merkel, a former EPA staff attorney who is now with the Environmental Integrity Project. "Four years ago we already knew that facilities of a certain size were exceeding health-based standards in the Clean Air Act."
Animal farms account for 73 percent of the ammonia released into the air.
Industry officials say they are ready to cooperate but reject the idea that factory farms present a serious environmental or human health threat. "In terms of human health impacts, there has not been anything scientifically proven that these hog barns would cause any ill to human beings," says Kara Flynn, spokeswoman for the National Pork Producers Council.