CAFO Odors and the Ghost of William Aldred

Posted on July 10, 2018 by Susan Cooke

The number and size of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have increased in recent years.  These operations keep large numbers of animals in a confined space and provide them with feed from offsite sources prior to their slaughter.  While generally viewed as cost efficient, CAFOs raise concerns about animal welfare and about their environmental impacts and effect on the health and quality of life for those living or working nearby.  Such concerns include the foul odors associated with the substantial quantities of animal waste that are generated, especially where such waste is discharged into pits and then flushed into open air lagoons.  The sludge in those lagoons sinks to the bottom and is periodically removed for land application and the liquid waste remaining at the top is sprayed as fertilizer onto adjacent fields.

The anaerobic reaction that occurs during pit and lagoon storage of the waste over an extended time period is the primary generator of such odor, the primary constituents being ammonia and hydrogen sulfide.  Anaerobic digesters and other technologies can be employed to reduce odor generation, with some also producing gases for fuel.  However, the costs of installing and operating such equipment can be substantial, and there are no specific requirements at the federal level mandating odor control or limiting ammonia or hydrogen sulfide emissions from CAFO operations.  Indeed, even the reporting of animal waste air emissions under the federal Superfund law and under EPCRA (as interpreted by EPA) is precluded under the Fair Agricultural Reporting Method (FARM) Act signed into law by Congress in March 2018

While there is little regulation at the federal level, some states have imposed limits on hydrogen sulfide.  For example, California has a one hour average standard and Minnesota has a 30 minute standard for H2S.  In addition, a few states have instituted odor standards covering some CAFOs, including Colorado’s odor standard, which is based on an odor dilution factor, for swine CAFOs above a certain size (i.e., the odor must be eliminated by a specified amount of dilution).  While most local ordinances covering odors enjoin nuisances in general, some have adopted a dilution factor standard that is generally applicable, such as the ordinance adopted in Denver, Colorado and that adopted in South St. Paul, Minnesota.

Even where CAFOs are singled out for specific regulation by state, the dilution factor standard is not often used, probably because it is in essence subjective in nature and thus quite different from most environmental emission standards.  Instead, states have generally adopted a management plan approach coupled with registration and periodic inspections.  For example, the environmental regulations covering odor control at CAFOs in North Carolina, which has a number of swine CAFOs in the southeastern portion of the state, do not include a specific standard covering odor.  Instead, those regulations impose setback requirements and provide for state agency inspections, and they empower that agency to require preparation and modification of a best management plan if it determines that odor control is necessary.

Given the absence of a specific standard for judging CAFO emissions, some neighbors of CAFO operations have brought tort suits for nuisance to address odor concerns.  In one case decided this past April, a jury awarded $50 million in compensatory and punitive damages to 10 neighbors of a North Carolina hog farm.  The plaintiffs claimed that the truck noise associated with farm operations and the odor associated with lagoon storage of waste from its 4700 hogs and the spraying of lagoon liquid onto nearby fields created a nuisance.

Although the federal court reduced recovery to $3.25 million under punitive damage limits imposed under the North Carolina Right to Farm Law, agribusiness interests raised strong concerns about the damage award and within weeks the North Carolina legislature had passed amendments to the state Right to Farm Law to further restrict tort recovery for alleged nuisances from agricultural and forestry operations.  Although those amendments (in Senate Bill 711) were vetoed by Governor Roy Cooper on June 25, the veto was overridden by both houses before their month-end adjournment.

The amendments, which are similar to statutory language already enacted in Missouri for facilities engaged in crop and animal production, would limit compensation to property located within one half mile of the alleged source of a nuisance at an agricultural or forestry operation.  In addition, the suit would have to be filed within one year of the operation’s establishment or of a fundamental change (which wouldn’t include, among other things, a change in ownership or size) to that operation, with compensatory damages limited to a reduction in fair market value of the plaintiff’s property for a permanent nuisance and to diminution in fair rental value for a temporary nuisance.  While punitive damages are already capped at a specified multiple of compensatory damages, the amendments would limit them to instances where, during the previous three years, the operation had been the subject of a criminal conviction or civil enforcement action or of regulatory action taken by the state or federal government pursuant to a notice of violation.

Such limits on monetary recovery for nuisance may encourage plaintiffs to seek injunctive relief to abate odors from CAFO operations.  And tort suits for nuisance animal odors have a long history, as evidenced by William Aldred’s Case dating back to 1610 where the Court of King’s Bench held that Mr. Aldred, whose house was situated within 30 feet of a later constructed hog sty, had a right to obtain abatement of the foul odor emanating from that hog sty.

In recent years the injunction remedy in a nuisance action has sometimes been disfavored, as illustrated in the Boomer v. Atlantic Cement decision where monetary damages were awarded rather than injunctive relief for operation of a cement plant.  There the court weighed the (lower) cost of compensatory damages versus the (significantly higher) cost associated with installing abatement equipment or requiring plant shutdown.  However, it now appears that determining “entitlements” under an economic efficiency analysis, such as that described in the oft-cited Property Rules, Liability Rules, and Inalienability: One View of the Cathedral, is undergoing more critical academic scrutiny.

Moreover, animal welfare advocates, as well as those concerned about environmental justice or greenhouse gas emissions, and perhaps even property rights advocates, may add their own voices in support of the injunctive remedy option for stopping or curtailing CAFO operations.  If so, then the right of a landowner to quiet (and unscented) enjoyment of his or her property through an injunction, as enunciated by the King’s Bench more than 400 years ago, may prove to be the most effective remedy for those seeking to curtail CAFO odor emissions.



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