WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Manure generated on large U.S. livestock farms, which can later contaminate soil and water, has lead to a fierce debate over whether farmers and ranchers should be held responsible for cleaning up the mess.
A lawsuit by Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson against Arkansas poultry companies claims phosphorus runoff from their chicken litter has polluted streams and rivers in Oklahoma. The lawsuit includes Tyson Foods Inc., the largest U.S. meat company.
"States like Oklahoma need legal tools to help stop and clean up animal-waste contamination, which is destroying significant and irreplaceable public resources," Edmondson told the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on Thursday.
So-called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are becoming more common in the United States, with an estimated 19,000 in existence, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Benjamin Grumbles, assistant administrator for water with the EPA, said states do "have the right to sue" since they are the ones that carry out the programs overseen by the agency.
Bipartisan legislation, introduced in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate earlier this year, would clarify that livestock manure is exempt from the EPA's "Superfund law" created in 1980 to address cleanup of hazardous and toxic chemical spills. Previous efforts to exempt manure from the Superfund law have foundered.
Republican Kit Bond of Missouri said the Superfund law was never intended to be applied to agriculture, and the lawsuit by the state of Oklahoma amounted to nothing more than "litigation gridlock" that will ultimately hurt farmers.
If livestock manure, used mostly by farmers as a fertilizer, was regulated under the EPA law, virtually every farm could be subject to millions of dollars in liabilities and penalties, supporters of the legislation say.
Still, others argue that strong oversight is needed to protect consumers against food poisoning outbreaks that can be caused when manure seeps into irrigation water.
Nearly 30 groups, including attorneys general from eight states, local officials and environmental groups, oppose an exemption for large farms that emit huge amounts of manure that can contain ammonia, bacteria, particulate matter and metals such as copper and arsenic.
"CAFOs like every other major industry in this country, should be expected, and required, to accept their obligations and comply in full with environmental laws," said Catharine Fitzsimmons, chief of the Air Quality Bureau for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest U.S. farm organization, said the vast majority of farmers who operate CAFOs are involved in a family-based business.
"Many operations are near the tipping point where needless regulations that accomplish no real environmental or food safety goal will drive them out of business," said Chris Chinn with the farm group.
Agriculture operations already are regulated under the Clean Water and Clean Air acts, as well as other federal and state environmental laws.