DES MOINES (AP) - Farms can't be sued because of the pollution or odors they may emit as long as they have entered into an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.
A cadre of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, had sued, claiming that the EPA's policies allowed animal feeding operations to skirt environmental laws and only pay a nominal fine.
The petitioners in the lawsuit 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.
The groups' lawsuit maintained that the EPA did not follow proper rule-making procedures in crafting agreements between the farms and the EPA.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected that argument in a 2-1 ruling. The court found that the EPA was exercising a valid use of the agency's enforcement discretion by entering into agreements with the farms.
Under EPA policy, animal feeding operations - farms where animals are raised for eggs, dairy or slaughter - can avoid legal punishment and lawsuits for violating air emissions requirements as long as they pay a civil penalty and give the government permission to monitor the facility for an EPA study of emissions from such operations.
Nearly 2,600 animal feeding operations, the majority of them hog farms, have availed themselves of the EPA's agreements.
Environmental groups said the agreements have virtually deregulated emissions of hog lots, factory farms and other operations, allowing them to produce foul odors and pollute the air.
"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. "Thousands of organizations have signed up for this EPA program. It's a better deal than Scooter Libby got."
The environmental groups' case was argued by Brent J. Newell, of San Francisco, who was not immediately available for comment.
Other environmental groups involved in the lawsuit also expressed disappointment with Tuesday's ruling.
"The decision ... is another example of federal judicial hostility to environmental plaintiffs," Luke W. Cole, the executive director of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, said in a statement. "We are reviewing the decision with our clients to determine our 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 have recently begun monitoring the emissions of animal feeding operations at 24 sites in nine states. When the 30-month 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."
Environmental groups contend that under the Bush administration the EPA has been too slow in its efforts to regulate farm emissions.
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," said Spronk, also a pork producer from Edgerton, Minn.
Bookbinder said the environmental groups would likely appeal Tuesday's ruling.