updated 11/3/2008 3:49:49 PM ET 2008-11-03T20:49:49

The Environmental Protection Agency issued new pollution control requirements for large livestock feedlots Friday that would allow farm operators to avoid having to get a permit if they claim the facility will not put harmful discharges into nearby waterways.

EPA officials said the new requirements call for a "zero discharge standard" and also will require farm operators to develop management plans that prevent the runoff of excessive environmentally damaging nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous into lakes and streams.

The new rules provide "a strong national standard for pollution prevention and environmental protection while maintaining our country's economic and agricultural competitiveness," said Benjamin Grumbles, the EPA's assistant administrator for water, in a statement.

Environmentalists have long complained that animal feedlots — the large farm operations where hogs and cattle are fattened before slaughter — pollute waterways because of their huge buildup of manure which is piled up or spread across the land.

The EPA issued new pollution control requirement on such feedlots in 2003, but that regulation was overturned by the courts two years later. The rules issued Friday, to go into effect next February, are an attempt to meet the court's concerns.

Under the rules, a feedlot would not automatically have to obtain a pollution discharge permit and could be certified as voluntarily complying with the "zero discharge" standard. Operators would determine whether their facility is releasing or will release pollution into waterways based on the design of the facility and its operation. If they conclude no discharges will take place, they can operate without applying for a federal permit.

Environmentalists complained this provision will let many of the feedlot operators off the hook.

"This regulation allows these industrial meat farms to avoid the Clean Water Act altogether by certifying that they have taken voluntary action to avoid discharges," said Eric Schaeffer, a former EPA enforcement official who now is director of the Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy group.

Because feedlot owners are allowed to determine whether they should seek a pollution permit "it literally puts the foxes in charge of their gigantic henhouses, as well as hog and dairy confinement operations," said Schaeffer.

The EPA estimated that the requirements will prevent the release into streams, lakes and other waterways of 56 million pounds of phosphorous, 110 million pounds of nitrogen and 2 billion pounds sediment a year.

The National Pork Producers Council called the new rules "tough but fair" and said they set a high environmental standards for the feedlots, known within the industry as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO).

"Pork producers are ready and willing to comply with the new regulations," said Randy Spronk, a pork producer from Edgerton, Minn., who is chairman of the council's environment committee.

Spronk acknowledged that "many CAFOs may choose not to get a federal permit because they are confident they will not discharge." But he added "with or without a permit, swine operations that are not well managed and have discharges are facing severe penalties."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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