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New rules to stem pollution on factory farms draw fire

Environmentalists say Bush's cooperative approach is toothless, while the EPA sees it as efficient and effective.

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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.


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