Livestock make up a substantial percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions, and a group of environmental and animal welfare groups have had enough of what they say is inadequate Environmental Protection Agency oversight on those emissions.
This week, a group of eight organizations, including the Humane Society of the United States, Center for Food Safety and the Sierra Club, filed two lawsuits against the EPA for not doing enough to control emissions from large Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs. One lawsuit deals with ammonia pollution, and the other addresses methane and other air pollutants.
The lawsuits say that the EPA hasn’t yet responded to petitions sent in 2009 and 2011 by some of the groups asking the agency to regulate emissions from CAFOs, a delay that one of the lawsuits calls “unreasonable.” The lawsuit also states that, by refusing to respond to the petitions, the EPA has continued with its business-as-usual approach to CAFO emissions, instead of implementing meaningful changes.
“CAFOs degrade the environment,” the organizations write in the lawsuit tackling methane and other air pollutants. “Their emissions exacerbate climate change; impair air quality; lead to the formation of haze, fine particulate matter, and ozone; and contribute to the impairment of land and water resources, causing ‘dead zones’ in waterways and acidification of soil and waters. CAFO air pollution is nationally significant, noxious, and dangerous to public health and welfare, wildlife, and the environment.”
For that reason, the groups say, the EPA needs to regulate the emissions. The petitions called on the agency to classify CAFOs as pollution sources under the Clean Air Act, and set emissions standards for existing CAFOs. The lawsuits call on the agency to respond to those petitions.
“EPA has really gone awry by looking the other way regarding pollution from this industry,” Tarah Heinzen, a lawyer with the Environmental Integrity Project, told InsideClimate News. “It shouldn’t have to fall to citizens to petition EPA to do its job.”
The lawsuits claim that emissions from CAFOs are a public health threat. Studies have documented some of the impacts of living near major livestock operations: one study from 2006 found that children who attended school near a CAFO had a higher risk of asthma than kids who didn’t, and according to the CDC, the ammonia emitted by CAFOs can build up in a person’s airways, causing severe coughing and even scarring of the airways.
“When the emissions are at their worst, we have had to leave our home for days at a time,” Rosie Partridge, an Iowa resident who has 30,000 hogs within four miles of her home, said in a statement on the lawsuits. “The ammonia and hydrogen sulfide are so strong that my husband has trouble breathing.”
CAFOs in the U.S. produce more than 500 million tons of manure each year — an amount that, the Environmental Integrity Project notes, is three times the amount of human waste produced each year. The manure, which is often stored in pits, can make its way into streams via runoff or a spill, and can end up contributing to algal blooms and dead zones. It’s also sometimes sprayed onto fields, a practice which can make life unpleasant for nearby residents.
“It even got into the walls of our home,” Scott Murray, who sold his home in Juneau County, Wisconsin after the manure sprayed onto nearby fields became too much to bare, told Wisconsin Water Watch last year. “It was an ammonia smell. It hurt so bad even to breathe.”
Livestock production’s contribution to climate change has been well-documented, both in the U.S. and around the world. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, global livestock production is responsible for 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. In the U.S., agriculture accounts for 10 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Cattle are the worst offenders — they produce five times more greenhouse gas emissions than pigs or chickens, due in part to their gassy digestive process. The EPA may not be doing enough, in the eyes of some groups, to address the emissions, but consumers can do their part — a study last year found that meat-eaters contributed 50 to 54 percent more more food-related greenhouse gas emissions than vegetarians and 99 to 102 percent more than vegans.
The USDA has also come under fire recently for reportedly using “weather variation” instead of “climate change” when it talks to farmers. The agency is expected to release its updated dietary guidelines this year, recommendations that might (or might not) include statements on certain foods’ impact on environmental sustainability.