DES MOINES, Iowa – Farms can't be sued over the pollution or odors they emit as long as they have entered into an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency, a federal appeals court ruled.
The ruling, issued Tuesday, was a rebuke to environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, which sued to change an EPA policy they say allows animal feeding operations to skirt environmental laws and only pay nominal fines.
The petitioners maintained that animal feeding operations pollute the air, emit terrible odors and attract hordes of flies that leave droppings on everything from cars to furniture.
They argued that the EPA did not follow proper rule-making procedures in crafting an agreements to allow farms to avoid legal punishment and lawsuits for violating air emissions requirements. The agreements requires the farms to pay a civil penalty and give the government permission to monitor the facility for an EPA study of emissions.
Nearly 2,600 animal feeding operations, the majority of them hog farms, have entered into agreement with the EPA.
"The EPA decided to give them blanket amnesty in the form of, 'You send us a check ... and we'll guarantee that no one will sue you,"' said David Bookbinder, senior attorney for the Sierra Club.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, however, found in its 2-1 ruling that the EPA was exercising a valid use of the agency's enforcement discretion by entering into agreements with the farms.
A call to the groups' attorney, Brent J. Newell, was not immediately returned.
Luke W. Cole, the executive director of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, said it was reviewing the decision to determine its next course of action.
The EPA maintains its policy is the most effective option while methods of tracking farm emissions are studied.
Researchers from eight universities this summer began a 30-month study of the emissions of animal feeding operations at 24 sites in nine states. When the study is complete, the EPA is expected to draft air emissions standards for such operations.
"The (animal feeding operations) agreements bring us closer to ensuring clean air compliance nationwide ..." EPA spokesman Dave Ryan said in a statement. "Additionally, the first-ever national study of emissions from poultry, dairy and swine operations can continue without delay."
Organizations with ties to the livestock industry have supported the EPA's policy on agreements, and on Tuesday applauded the court's ruling.
Randy Spronk, the chairman of the National Pork Producers Council's environmental policy committee, said the agreements between the EPA and animal feeding operations were a necessary bridge while an emissions study is completed.
"By working cooperatively with the EPA to conduct emissions monitoring, we are developing the body of scientific knowledge on air emissions from animal agriculture that is necessary to design and implement effective mitigation measures," Spronk said in a statement.