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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Animal Waste and Hazardous Substances: Current Laws and Legislative Issues

Claudia Copeland
Specialist in Resources and Environmental Policy

The animal sector of agriculture has undergone major changes in the last several decades: organizational changes within the industry to enhance economic efficiency have resulted in larger confined production facilities that often are geographically concentrated. These changes, in turn, have given rise to concerns over the management of animal wastes and potential impacts on environmental quality.

Federal environmental law does not regulate all agricultural activities, but certain large animal feeding operations (AFOs) where animals are housed and raised in confinement are subject to regulation. The issue of applicability of these laws to livestock and poultry operations— especially the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA, the Superfund law) and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA)—has been controversial and has drawn congressional attention.

Both Superfund and EPCRA have reporting requirements that are triggered when specified quantities of certain substances are released to the environment. In addition, Superfund authorizes federal cleanup of releases of hazardous substances, pollutants, or contaminants and imposes strict liability for cleanup and injuries to natural resources from releases of hazardous substances.

Superfund and EPCRA include citizen suit provisions that have been used to sue poultry producers and swine operations for violations of those laws. In two cases, environmental advocates claimed that AFO operators had failed to report ammonia emissions, in violation of Superfund and EPCRA. In both cases, federal courts supported broad interpretation of key terms defining applicability of the laws’ reporting requirements. Three other cases not dealing with reporting violations also have attracted attention, in part because of questions of whether animal wastes contain hazardous substances that can create cleanup and natural resource damage liability under Superfund.

In December 2008, EPA issued a rule to exempt animal waste emissions to the air from most CERCLA and EPCRA reporting requirements. Legal challenges to the rule followed. In October 2010, a federal court approved the government’s request to remand the rule to EPA for reconsideration and possible modification, but the agency has not yet proposed a new or revised rule.

The lawsuits testing the applicability of CERCLA and EPCRA to poultry and livestock operations and potential changes by EPA to the 2008 exemption rule have led to congressional interest in these issues. In the 112th Congress, legislation was introduced that would amend CERCLA to clarify that manure is not a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant under that act and that the notification requirements of both laws would not apply to releases of manure (H.R. 2997 and S. 1729). Proponents have argued that Congress did not intend that either of these laws apply to agriculture and that enforcement and regulatory mechanisms under other laws are adequate to address environmental releases from animal agriculture. Opponents respond that enacting an exemption would severely hamper the ability of government and citizens to know about and respond to releases of hazardous substances caused by an animal agriculture operation. Similar legislation has not been introduced in the 113th Congress.

Date of Report: September 10, 2013
Number of Pages: 14
Order Number: RL33691
Price: $29.95

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