A coalition of environment, animal-welfare and community health organizations filed two lawsuits against EPA today, claiming the agency has failed to address air pollution from factory farms.

The Humane Society of the United States and the Environmental Integrity Project are leading the charge, claiming the EPA has not fulfilled its duty to protect citizens. The groups filed petitions in 2009 and 2011 asking the agency to set national ambient air quality standards for ammonia. When nitrogen from manure decomposes, it releases several gases, one of which is ammonia. Ammonia can volatize, and when it does, it’s harmful to farm laborers, birds and the neighboring homes.

The agency didn’t respond to the petitions, and the groups felt it had had enough time to do so. The legal action asks the courts to compel the EPA to address the petitions. If the EPA agrees to address the petitions and then finds them without merit, the groups say, they will file further legal action.

Nationwide, factory farms produce more than 500 million tons of manure. That manure is made up of nitrogen and phosphorus. The phosphorus can run off the land and enter waterways through subsurface pathways, causing damage to streams and rivers, fueling algae blooms and creating dead zones. The nitrogen can get into the waterways as well, but much of it goes up in the air, as a gas. Ammonia is one of the most harmful gases, scientists say.

  Some of these factory farms meet the definition of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOS) and require a permit under the Clean Water Act. Whether the facilities actually have one of these permits is in part determined by the state in which they operate. In the Chesapeake watershed, many Maryland CAFOs either have water quality permits or are in the process of getting them. Very few chicken growers in West Virginia have them yet.

Whether or not these facilities have a permit under the Clean Water Act, they do not have a permit under the Clean Air Act. Regulators do not look at air emissions, said Tarah Heinzen, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project. Though the EPA requires exhausted particulate matter to be 10 microns or less, and regulates volatile organic compounds, Heinzen said she is “Not aware of any CAFOS that are subject to Clean Air Act permits.”

High concentrations of air pollution can lead to serious health problems, said Keeve Nachman, director of the Food Production and Public Health Program at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. Those problems do not just stem from ammonia emissions, Nachman said, but from the cumulative consequences of the released gases, particulates and pathogens. The health problems include physical ailments such as asthma, sinusitis and MRSA, as well as psychological distresses. Disproportionately, Nachman said, these facilities are located in poorer neighborhoods.


“Taken together, living close to one of these things puts one’s health at risk,” Nachman said. “EPA is not making it its business right now to take measurements in these communities and survey these communities for adverse health effects.”

For more information on the lawsuit, visit www.environmentintegrity.org.