Pork attorney: Livestock confinements are not a public health hazard

By: - October 29, 2021 11:54 am

Some hog confinements, such as this one in Carroll County, have curtains on their long sides that can be opened to ventilate the buildings. (Photo by Jared Strong)

There is no evidence that livestock confinements are a threat to public health or unduly pollute the air, according to an attorney for the Iowa Pork Producers Association.

“If producers believed that their buildings were making anyone sick or were a health hazard, they’d be the first to say we need to do something different,” attorney Eldon McAfee told Iowa Capital Dispatch. “Producers do not believe in any way that their buildings are violating any emissions standards or causing a health hazard.”

McAfee’s comments were in response to a petition this week from environmental and animal-welfare groups that want the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the Clean Air Act as it might pertain to the confinements.

For 16 years the agency has suspended that enforcement as part of an agreement with confinement owners and operators in which they paid modest, one-time fines and helped fund an agency study of the buildings’ emissions.

Hog manure, when it decomposes, produces hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. Those gases can be deadly in high concentrations in confined spaces.

In 2015, a northwest Iowa man and his son died when they descended into a confinement’s manure pit and were apparently overcome by its fumes.

The question is: Are those fumes dangerous to people and the environment when they are released from the building?

“Despite what others say, measuring emissions from a hog building is not as easy as some other industries,” McAfee said. “They’re just different.”

Basically, there’s no smokestack to sample.

Many confinements are vented by opening curtains that span the lengths of their longest sides. Developing a reliable method to measure emissions from those buildings has long flummoxed the EPA, which finally published a proposal of potential methods last year.

That proposal was overdue by about a decade. It is expected to lead to greater EPA oversight of confinements in the coming years, but a timeline is unclear.

“We believe the whole goal — if there was an issue here with emissions — was to bring producers into compliance, not just find them out of compliance,” McAfee said. “Could things have been done faster? That can always be the case depending on how you look at it.”

Confinement operators have been largely immune to litigation from people who live near the buildings and say their quality of life is diminished by odors and insects that come from them. A 1995 state law that affords them that legal protection has mostly withstood court challenges of its constitutionality.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register. His investigative work exposing police misconduct has notched several state and national awards. He is a longtime trustee of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which fights for open records and open government. He is a lifelong Iowan and has lived mostly in rural western parts of the state.

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