With their expansive deck overlooking a pond, Shirley Kidwell and her family used to spend summer days outdoors reading, but the growth of large animal farms in the area has eliminated that pastime.
“When that odor hits, you’ve got to go inside and a lot of times we go downstairs to the basement to get away from it,” said Kidwell, the owner of a small farm in Callaway county, Missouri, and the secretary for Friends of Responsible Agriculture, who lives within a mile of a farm with 5,600 hogs.
Kidwell and other residents are particularly worried about a new 10,000-hog farm moving to Callaway county. It would be built less than a mile from Kidwell’s home.
According to a 2017 report from the office of the inspector general, there are currently 450,000 animal feeding operations in the U.S. The majority contain less than 300 animals, but approximately 18,000 raise thousands of animals.
Air pollution from those operations can create numerous respiratory health problems, such as asthma, and contribute to climate change.
In addition to methane, a potent greenhouse gas, concentrated animal feeding operations, also called CAFOs, emit ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds according to a 2014 Centers for Disease Control report.
Concerned residents face an uphill battle in a regulatory environment that often favors the agriculture industry.
There is also lack of federal regulation, given that Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced the day after Christmas in 2017 that the EPA would not be regulating concentrated animal feeding operations under the Clean Air Act.
The decision followed the completion of a multi-year study of 24 concentrated animal feeding operations’ air emissions funded by industry members in cooperation with the EPA, as well as the denial of a petition from nine environmental organizations asking the EPA to regulate those operations under the Clean Air Act.
Congress removed the minimal regulations placed on agricultural air pollution in March 2018.
The failure to regulate angered environmental organizations and locals alike.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s central mission is to protect human health and the environment.
Concentrated animal operations impact the nation’s health and environment in a measurable manner, so allowing their air emissions to remain unregulated benefits only big industry, not the general public, said Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and technology Friends of the Earth, a national environmental advocacy organization with offices in Washington, D.C., and Berkeley, California.
In the official letter, Pruitt said the EPA had other priorities for its shrinking staff and declining budget. An analysis of his February-May calendar, released in response to an Environmental Integrity Project Freedom of Information Act request, showed he spent the majority of his time returning to Oklahoma or meeting with oil, gas and financial organizations.
Pruitt also cited a lack of accurate emission estimation methods.
Enesta Jones, EPA Press Officer for Air Toxics, said in an email that CAFO emissions can’t be estimated accurately based only on the number and type of animals at each operation. She said emission levels are influenced by location, environmental conditions, animal feed and manure management, animal housing and other management practices.
The EPA could still create rules establishing CAFOs as a stationary pollution source that endangers the environment and community, continuing to develop evaluation methods afterward, Hamerschlag said, adding that the Clean Air Act does not require perfect data to establish general guidelines.
With the sheer number of animals raised in the United States, the pollution released is substantial.
In 2016, the United States produced approximately 97 billion pounds of red meat and poultry, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. In 2015, agriculture, food and related industries made up 5.5 percent of the total gross domestic product.
Concentrated animal feeding operations also produce massive amounts of manure. In 2013, the EPA estimated that 2.2 billion livestock and poultry released approximately 1.1 billion tons of manure. Manure is one of the main sources of water and air pollution from concentrated animal feeding operations.
Animal manure contributes to 10 percent of annual methane emissions, according to a 2015 EPA overview.
Methane has a 25 times greater impact on climate change than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, according to the EPA. California passed strict legislation to tackle agricultural methane emissions specifically from dairy and livestock operations through Senate Bill 1383 in September 2016.
Children are particularly vulnerable to developing asthma when they attend school near a concentrated animal feeding operation, according to a University of Iowa study.
In the study, the asthma rates of students in kindergarten through fifth grade who attended school within half a mile of a concentrated animal feeding operation were compared with those who attended a school over 10 miles from a concentrated animal feeding operation. Those near the farm had a 25 percent asthma rate compared to the control group’s 12 percent asthma rate.
Odor is a frequent complaint from residents living near a concentrated animal feeding operation, and that is regulated in Missouri under the Odor Control Programs, according to Teng Teeh Lim, a University of Missouri Extension professor in agriculture systems management in the division of food systems and bioengineering who has contributed to numerous EPA-led studies.
For those operations with over 7,000 animal units, a buffer zone is required for permits to be approved. In addition, an odor control plan must be prepared and implemented, as described by the Air Pollution Control Program under its odor emission regulations. Those raising under 7,000 animal units are not subject to odor restrictions, but are still inspected if complaints arise.
Not all residents are concerned only with odors, however, and concerns are not confined to a single county.
On April 3, hundreds of people attended a public hearing hosted by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources in Kansas City over the planned expansion of Valley Oaks Steak Company.
The company currently has 900 cattle and applied for a permit that would allow it to build six more facilities, bringing it to just under 7,000 cattle. It would be the first concentrated beef operation in Johnson county.
CAFOs are currently regulated under the Clean Water Act, which requires that all concentrated animal operations obtain a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit laying out how manure and waste can be disposed of in relation to nearby bodies of water.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources said the company will be required to build manure storage facilities that will prevent exposure to rain and stormwater runoff, and that the manure can be applied as fertilizer to fields.
No law currently regulates air pollutants from concentrated animal feeding operations following the passage of the FARM Act on March 23, 2018, which removed the requirement for the reporting of hazardous levels of air emissions from agricultural operations.
Rachel Cox, a local resident who attended the Valley Oaks meeting out of concern for her children’s future health, said she is particularly worried about the health effects that could take years to become evident.
“My kids might have to grow up with that,” she said. “Me and my husband would never dream of smoking in front of our kids, so why would you choose to live in one of those areas that are heavily polluted?”
Public hearings regarding the Valley Oaks Steak Company’s expansion will continue. Valley Oaks Steak Company declined to comment for this story.
How we got to where we are today
The EPA’s involvement in concentrated animal operations emission regulations began in 2002, when the National Academies Press, advisors to the nation on science, engineering and medicine, published a report stating the EPA needed to develop methods for estimating animal feeding operations’ emissions.
The report said the increasing number and concentration of animal feeding operations in the U.S., coupled with growing concerns regarding the emissions from the large quantities of manure produced, logically led to the need for regulation.
The National Air Emissions Monitoring Study began three years later in 2007.
The study was funded by a not-for-profit organization called the Agricultural Air Research Council as part of a voluntary compliance agreement with the EPA, according to the EPA’s website.
The council was comprised of industry groups such as the National Pork Board, National Chicken Council, National Milk Producers Federation and American Egg Board.
The study lasted two years, with 24 animal feeding operation sites monitored in nine states, according to the EPA website.
It examined the monitoring of particulate matter, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and volatile organic compounds, as well as animal housing and the management of animals and their waste.
In 2008, the U.S. Government Accountability Office published a report detailing the study’s myriad of problems.
The report said that too few states were being studied and data collection methods needed to be reevaluated.
In addition, it stated that the retiring of staff with necessary expertise in agriculture emissions, air quality and statistical analysis during the study would jeopardize the quality of results.
These issues meant the study would not provide enough statistically valid data to create regulations for concentrated animal operation air emission, the report concluded. Regardless, the study continued unaltered.
One year later, nine groups submitted a petition asking the EPA to regulate concentrated animal operations under the Clean Air Act. The petitioners included The Humane Society of the United States, the Environmental Integrity Project, Friends of the Earth and others.
Hamerschlag said that Friends of the Earth joined the petition because it did not want to wait on the results of the national study when it did not focus on greenhouse gas emissions (such as methane) or involve the monitoring of concentrated beef operations.
In 2012, the results of the National Air Emissions Monitoring Study were published and the analysis by outside parties began.
According to the OIG, the EPA used the data to create draft emission regulations only for broiler operations, as those were the type of operation with the greatest amount of scientifically viable data.
The National Academy of Sciences had called on the EPA to collect scientifically credible methodologies, but the Science Advisory Board found the data collected questionable.
The National Pork Producers Council, one of the study’s funders, released an official statement saying that it wanted the EPA to complete the review of the monitoring study’s data and create scientifically valid air emission estimation methods to remove uncertainties for farmers.
EPA staff originally assigned to the National Air Emissions Monitoring Study were reassigned and funding for analysis of the data stopped.
Friends of the Earth challenged the EPA in 2015 for its failure to respond in a timely manner to the 2009 petition but received no response. The group contacted the EPA again in 2016, yet still received no response, according to Hamerschlag.
The EPA’s Office of Inspector General, an independent office within the agency that consists of auditors, program analysts, investigators and other experts who ensure that the agency is acting efficiently, conducted a review of the National Air Emissions Monitoring Study in 2017.
It echoed the GAO’s criticisms of the study, mainly that the monitoring methods were substandard to such a degree that the data could not be used to create emission regulations.
The OIG recommended that the EPA reevaluate how to collect scientifically valid data in order to create future regulations. The EPA should then update stakeholders and select locations for monitoring, with a clear timeline presented to organizations such as the OIG for evaluation before data collection.
In 2017, Pruitt announced the EPA’s decision not to regulate concentrated animal feeding operations under the Clean Air Act. Enesta Jones stated in an email that the EPA would update stakeholders on the agency’s plans for future studies in April 2018.
Action at the Local Level
In many Missouri counties, residents have attempted to use health ordinances to regulate concentrated animal feeding operations.
Residents of Callaway county have fought Callaway Farrowing LLC for the past four years, Kidwell said.
When residents were notified of the permit application in 2014, they responded by proposing a local health ordinance.
The ordinance would establish standards for the permitting future concentrated animal feeding operations coming to Callaway county. It would also create health regulations for the operations to follow once established, with those that violate subject to fines or imprisonment.
“What the health ordinance would do is put some regulation on them coming in so that they have to control the air emissions, they would have to meet setbacks from homes, in water supplies and so on, so that they’re not polluting everybody around them when they spread the waste,” Kidwell said.
The committee overseeing the permit approval did not review the health ordinance until February 2018.
In Callaway County, the residents’ efforts were in vain, as the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in favor of Callaway Farrowing LLC on April 3, 2018. They may now begin construction. When reached for comment, Callaway Farrowing LLC hung up on a reporter for this story and did not respond to further calls.
Since the federal government has yet to formulate national regulations for air emissions from concentrated animal operations, those living near the operations must fight on their own, facing opposition from legislators who want Missouri’s number of concentrated animal operations to increase, not decrease.
“Many legislators want Missouri to look more like Iowa,” said Melissa Vatterott, food and farm director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, an independent environmental organization based in St. Louis. While Missouri currently has approximately 531 concentrated animal operations, Iowa has 3,505, according to the EPA.
She said that Missouri legislators want to make it easier for concentrated animal operations to enter the state, and they are making it difficult for local communities to protect themselves.
One way the Missouri legislature specifically took action was its restructuring of the Clean Water Commission in 2016.
The seven-person committee has the final say on what concentrated animal feeding operations are approved based on their potential to pollute and measures taken to mitigate pollution. The committee denied a concentrated animal feeding operation permit in 2016 due to the operation failing to prove it had the necessary assets to pay for the clean-up of potential manure spills, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Following the permit denial, Sen. Brian Munzlinger, R-Williamstown, introduced legislation that altered the commission’s makeup, removing a requirement that four of the seven seats be held by members of the general public.
Now the committee has been reduced to industry members approving the permits of fellow industry members, Vatterott said.
The first is Ben Hurst, a Kansas City lawyer who is also the son of Missouri Farm Bureau Board of Directors President Blake Hurst. Patricia Thomas is the chief of staff for Sen. Munzlinger. Stan Coday is a former vocational agriculture teacher in Wright City and the current president of the Wright City Farm Bureau. Two seats on the seven-person committee are empty.
The final agriculture industry appointee to the commission was Ashley McCarty, who is also the executive director of Missouri Farmers Care.
The organization is a cooperative of large farms and concentrated animal feeding operations. It was founded in 2011 to act as a coordinated voice for agriculture producers in the state and against regulations that might restrict agriculture, particularly by outside groups drafting local legislation. The organization specifically targets those counties with health ordinances or zoning laws that would limit agriculture, according to McCarty.
“No county regulation should be more stringent than state law,” McCarty said.
Missouri Farmers Care would prefer if counties would simply follow what the Missouri Department of Natural Resources dictates, rather than adding more restrictions, she said.
“Patchwork regulations provide only uncertainty,” she said, adding that counties with restrictions would face difficulties enticing agricultural producers to come to their areas, thereby limiting their growth possibilities.
Beginning in 2015, the counties without those local health ordinances or zoning laws are labeled as “agri-ready” in a highlighted map. Currently, 36 of Missouri’s 114 counties are designated in such a way.
Kidwell said that McCarty’s involvement with both the Clean Water Commission and Missouri Farmers Care is a conflict of interest.
McCarty, however, does not see it that way.
“The governor was looking for people with agriculture experience to add to the board,” she said. “I have grown up on a family farm in addition to my experience through Missouri Farmers Care.”
She added that her work with the Clean Water Commission involves strictly following Missouri laws and regulations and checking if applicants are meeting the requirements laid out.
The EPA released its Quality Assurance Project Plan in May of 2018, which Jones said in an email would be used to guide the analysis of National Air Emissions Monitoring study data. She said that a schedule for estimation method development would be released in July 2018.
Organizations like the Missouri Coalition for the Environment are supporting local groups fighting against pollution from specific concentrated animal operations in addition to informing the public about bills to support and bills to oppose related to agriculture and pollution, Vatterott said.
“It’s currently not possible to be proactive on legislation due to the political climate,” Vatterott said.
Legislative actions will be difficult to achieve nationally as well, as governmental bodies are focused on decreasing regulation, not adding regulation, Hamerschlag said.
“In the absence of federal regulations, federal protections, I think it's really up to the communities in a local region to protect themselves and to fight to keep their environment safe,” Hamerschlag said, “to keep the CAFOs out so that they don't endanger their health and the environment.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave incorrect data about the amount of meat production the U.S. in 2016. This story was updated on June 12, 2018, to correct data to 97 billion pounds produced in 2016, not 9.7 million pounds as previously stated.
This story was produced by students in a Spring 2018 investigative reporting class at the University of Missouri School of Journalism taught by Sara Shipley Hiles.
Sara Shipley Hiles is an assistant professor at the University of Missouri Journalism School and a former reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, and The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.
Morgan Niezing is a science and agricultural journalism major from St. Louis, Missouri. Following graduation, she is relocating to Denver, Colorado, to write freelance for magazines in the area.
Jiwon Choi is a graduate student studying convergence journalism from Osan, South Korea. Upon graduation, she is going to work in Minneapolis-St. Paul as a digital reporting intern this summer.
Payton Liming is studying journalism and agribusiness management and is from rural Colorado. Her plans after graduation are undecided, but she hopes to continue reporting in the future.