MEXICO, Mo. (AP) – Hog farmer Bill Kessler hopes a voluntary federal program for monitoring livestock emissions will keep his 500-sow operation out of court for a few years.

For $200, Kessler has essentially bought four years of amnesty from air-pollution penalties while the federal Environmental Protection Agency determines appropriate air quality standards for farm operations.

Technically, it’s an upfront penalty. Kessler calls it “an insurance policy.”

EPA officials had hoped to enlist thousands of hog, poultry, egg and dairy farmers when they announced the program in January.

The program’s success requires a range of participants, from factory farms to contract growers, to be monitored for ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and other potentially harmful airborne emissions.

The four-year program will help officials determine emissions levels for different types of farms before they crack down on emissions such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, volatile organic compounds and dust.

In the meantime, farmers who participate in the program pay a one-time penalty based on the type of farming operation, plus $2,500 toward monitoring costs.

As of Friday morning, hours before the latest deadline to enroll – it’s been extended twice – 1,050 businesses had signed on, an EPA spokeswoman said.

Bob Kaplan, an attorney in the EPA’s enforcement office, said the agency is pleased with the participation rate, despite the lower than projected numbers. He pointed out that the actual number of farms is greater than 1,050 since some businesses own multiple farms.

“I don’t think there’s any cause for concern,” he said. “For some sectors, we’ll have plenty of representation.”

Even with the promise of four years of legal amnesty, the incentive to participate is difficult to determine, said Morril Harriman, executive vice president of the Poultry Federation of Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

“You are signing an agreement that says, ‘I am not violating any air quality laws. Here, I’m going to pay you to see if I’m violating any air quality laws,”‘ he said. “It’s extremely difficult to explain to people.”

Critics say the low participation points to the program’s fundamental flaw: Federal law regulating clean air, hazardous waste and emergency reporting systems already provide the EPA with the authority to hold agriculture accountable for air emissions.

“The deal may ultimately collapse under its own weight for lack of participation,” said Michelle Merkel, a former EPA enforcement attorney who now works for the Washington-based Environmental Integrity Group.

Southwest Missouri dairy farmer Larry Purdon calls the program a confusing mess.

“Most of us don’t know what the rules are,” said Purdon, who milks 100 cows on his farm near the Arkansas border. “We’ve got small little operations on the pasture. We don’t feel like there’s an air emission problem.”

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