msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/21/2005 3:41:09 PM ET 2005-01-21T20:41:09

Factory-style farms that generate a huge amount of animal waste will be exempt from Clean Air Act fines of more than $100,000 if they agree to monitor their air quality and submit the data to the government for use in future regulation, the Environmental Protection Agency said Friday.

The EPA said its offer could result in the first federal emissions standards for animal processing farms within about four years. By contrast, setting the air quality standards by forcing the farms to submit to air quality monitoring could take a decade or more, EPA officials said.

Environmentalists were critical of the plan. "The largest corporations in the livestock industry are being let off-the-hook in exchange for agreeing to ‘study’ their air pollution and paying small fees," the Sierra Club's Ed Hopkins said in a statement. "Under this deal, the companies are not actually required to reduce any harmful pollution."

In exchange for agreeing to submit to monitoring, the farms would be immune to federal Clean Air Act violations until the regulation is made final. The companies that operate them also would contribute $2,500 to an EPA air monitoring fund and pay a one-time civil penalty of anywhere from $200 to $100,000, based on the size and number of their farms, to forgive presumed past air quality violations.

“This is not a ’pay up and get out of jail free’ pass,” said Thomas Skinner, EPA’s acting chief of enforcement. Rather, he said, it was intended to give EPA the ability to ensure that as many of the farms as possible are complying with clean air laws in the shortest time possible.

The deal will not undercut state and local laws the farms are subject to, Skinner said.

Hopkins claimed that "under the Clean Air Act, the EPA already has the ability to require polluting facilities to provide data on their emissions, without exempting the polluters and putting nearby residents at risk."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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