WASHINGTON, D.C. A proposal by the agriculture industry is alarming environmentalists and communities that have long fought to stop the pollution of their air and water by factory farms.
Agriculture lobbyists and groups have suggested to the Bush administration that factory farms be given a two-year break from air quality and toxic waste cleanup laws if they take part in an $11 million research program financed by the industry.
Through much of the 1990s, factory farms were little bothered by regulations, thanks to legal loopholes. Toxic runoff and overflowing lagoons polluted hundreds of miles of streams with manure, killing millions of fish. Communities near these facilities complained that they fouled the air, threatening the health of those who live around them.
Now, as regulations are tightened, the industry again is looking for loopholes.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that negotiations with representatives of factory farms are meant only to address concerns raised last year by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The NAS criticized the EPA's system of measuring emissions from the manure of animals, and said the lack of certainty makes better regulation difficult.
But the Sierra Club and other environmental groups are charging that the Bush administration has been meeting behind closed doors with leaders from livestock and poultry industries, with the intent of exempting these industries from government lawsuits and clean air laws.
"Exempting animal factories from basic environmental laws like the Clean Air Act would quite simply put thousands of communities at risk," said Brent Newell, a Sierra Club attorney.
The EPA's J.P. Suarez said that an immunity agreement could be accomplished by having his agency agree not to sue industry groups during the two years of research, though any agreement would require factory farms to eventually comply with federal air and water laws.
"We would gather data and at the end of the day, we would evaluate which farms would be subject to the Clean Air Act," Suarez said.
Agriculture lobbyist John Thorne said that the impetus for the proposal was to better understand the science of monitoring for nitrous oxide, soot and other pollutants.
"The main reason for the whole discussion with EPA is research," he said. "We're not talking about a permanent exemption from the laws. All we're asking for is that no one can take the data we're paying to generate and use it against us."