Environmental groups are asking a federal court to affirm that farmers and ranchers must warn local fire and police departments that their livestock are emitting hazardous substances.
The groups accuse the Environmental Protection Agency of thwarting a previous ruling by the same U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The EPA denies the charge and maintains that a law meant to alert communities to dangerous chemicals still doesn’t apply to storing and spreading manure.
Washington State Dairy Federation policy director Jay Gordon said Monday that he hopes the court rejects the request by environmental groups and spares livestock owners from having to alert fire halls and police stations that their animals are releasing gas.
“It seems to be silliness run amok,” he said.
The pending motion filed by the New York-based Waterkeeper Alliance and others is the latest maneuver in long-running litigation over whether animal feeding operations such as dairies, cattle ranches, and pig and poultry farms must report gases given off by decomposing manure.
The D.C. court ruled in April that operations that emit more than 100 pounds of ammonia or hydrogen sulfide in a 24-hour period must report to federal authorities under the Superfund law and to local officials under the Community-Right-to-Know Act.
The court last week delayed the requirement until Jan. 22 to give the EPA more time to develop Superfund reporting forms tailored to agriculture.
The environmental groups opposed the delay, but more contentious is EPA’s stance that farmers and ranchers still won’t have to register with local officials.
The EPA argues that Congress exempted “routine agricultural operations” from the Right-to-Know Act, and the court’s ruling didn’t change that. The court only rejected the agency’s position that manure gases rising into the air would never need an emergency response.
The EPA says it will write a rule clarifying whether storing and spreading manure is a routine agricultural operation. Until the rule is finished, any court challenge would be premature, according to EPA.
The environmental groups claim that the EPA is misinterpreting the April decision. They argue that releasing ammonia and hydrogen sulfide can’t be considered a routine farming practice.
The court last week set a schedule that gives the EPA and Waterkeeper Alliance until April to submit further written arguments.
Efforts to obtain further comment from Waterkeeper Alliance were unsuccessful.
The Superfund law was inspired by such environmental disasters as Love Canal, a chemical dumping ground in Niagra Falls, N.Y., that destroyed a neighborhood. According to an EPA website, Congress passed the Right-to-Know Act in 1986 as a response to the chemical leak in Bhopal, India. That disaster killed 15,000 to 20,000 people, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
The EPA under three successive administrations sought to exempt agriculture from the Superfund and Right-To-Know laws. The court, however, ruled manure can give off dangerous fumes and that the information would be useful to firefighters trying to find the source of foul odors.
Gordon said that about a decade ago some dairies thought they had to alert local responders under the law.
“You were making phone calls to firefighters and police stations, and they didn’t know what to do with it,” he said. “They seemed pretty upset about having their phone lines tied up.”