Brushing aside concerns raised by environmental groups, the Bush administration exempted most poultry farms yesterday from reporting releases of ammonia and other hazardous substances from the waste their flocks produce.
The Environmental Protection Agency backed away from the blanket exemption it had originally proposed, saying the largest livestock farms will still have to report releases of potentially harmful gases - but only to emergency response planners, not environmental regulators. The agency freed the majority of growers housing fewer than 125,000 chickens from any reporting.
In a news release, EPA called it "a better approach" to reporting releases from farm animal waste, saying the amounts of ammonia and other pollutants escaping from livestock barns are unlikely to pose an imminent threat to people's health.
A Washington-based environmental group has estimated, however, that Maryland's multimillion-dollar poultry industry released more than 20 million pounds of ammonia into the air last year - 50 times the total released by the state's other industries. It also said sampling had found ammonia concentrations outside chicken houses that exceeded health limits set for indoor workplaces.
Ammonia is naturally produced in animal and human waste, and is a common ingredient in fertilizer and in household cleaning products. At high levels, it can irritate the skin and lungs, trigger coughing fits and cause breathing difficulties. It also contains nitrogen, one of the leading pollutants fouling Chesapeake Bay.
Richard Lobb of the National Chicken Council, which had sought the exemption, praised the EPA's action as a "reasonable compromise." The council had argued that the reporting was a needless hassle for farmers and that the releases weren't a health or environmental threat.
Environmentalists welcomed the EPA's decision to require the largest livestock farms to report, but they said it was still wrong not to track all significant pollutant releases from animal wastes. "This is not as bad as the proposal was," said Ed Hopkins of the Sierra Club. "These operations should, just like any other industry, monitor their emissions."
The regulation is to be published in the Federal Register next week and will take effect 30 days afterward, just before President George W. Bush leaves office. Environmentalists have complained that the administration is pushing through a series of "midnight" regulations easing environmental laws and rules, so that the incoming Democratic administration cannot easily undo them.