Environment

Rules protecting neighbors from odor and water pollution near intensive livestock and poultry feedlots would be eliminated under a bill moving in the Kentucky Senate. 

The bill was originally about dam safety, but now it also scraps a state permitting program for intensive animal waste operations not regulated by the federal government. 

Without them, Kentuckians living near intensive hog and chicken farms would have no recourse to ask state regulators to investigate and address odor complaints and water pollution, according to Kentucky Resources Council environmental attorney Tom FitzGerald.

“These are legitimate and necessary controls on the waste managed by these intensive agricultural feedlot operations,” he said. “This amendment could eliminate all of them.”

Kentucky has many intensive feedlot operations where hogs and chickens are raised in barns with underfloor pits and lagoons where waste collects. It’s a corporate, industrial model of farming that creates significant amounts of feces that has to be managed in a confined area. 

The state’s Energy and Environment cabinet permits these “no-discharge” agricultural waste handling operations to gather the waste and allow it to be used on land as fertilizer. Cabinet Spokesman John Mura said in a statement the bill would strip Kentuckians of protections that have been in place for over 30 years. 

“Should this become law, Kentuckians living near those agricultural operations would not be entitled to the same protections as those living near other types of facilities, like landfills or other odor sources,” Mura said.  

The Division for Air Quality investigated over 1,800 citizen complaints from 2017 to 2021, a substantial portion of which related to agricultural operations, Mura said. 

House Bill 597 requires emergency action plans for high hazard dams, but a committee substitute from Republican Sen. Matt Castlen of Owensboro added the unrelated language in committee. The new language was adopted and passed without any discussion of its contents. 

As written, the bill says the Energy and Environment Cabinet shall not require agricultural operations to meet permit or pollution limits that are more strict than federal rules from the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Castlen did not immediately return a request for comment. Bill sponsor Rep. Jim Gooch of Providence, a Republican, said the bill does not deregulate agricultural operations.

“That’s just simply not true,” he said. “Certainly the state would regulate them, but the regs would not be more stringent than federal regulations.”   

FitzGerald disputed that characterization. He said it would eliminate state regulations that have no federal counterpart. 

Without the state rules, there would be no setback protections that limit the application of hog and other animal wastes near streams, homes and businesses, he said. There would also be no state permitting to stop the overapplication of waste and no limits on odors or other air pollutants, FitzGerald said. 

In addition to the nuisances it causes neighbors, animal waste can overload waterways with harmful bacteria. The overapplication of fertilizer can also cause runoff that damages the environment, filling waterways with harmful levels of nutrients and contributing to algal blooms. 

House Bill 597 passed the state House before the new language was added. The Senate has two more days in the legislative session to pass the bill. 

Gov. Andy Beshear could veto the measure, but FitzGerald said that would be unfortunate because the underlying bill related to high hazard dams puts in place rules needed to protect Kentuckians. 

 

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.