The federal government’s first thoughts about how to curb pollution from animal feedlots got decidedly mixed reviews at a special “listening session” aimed at gathering input before a final strategy is released.

Environmentalists berated the draft “Unified National Strategy for Animal Feeding Operations” for being vague, weak and taking too long to take effect.

Many called for a moratorium on permitting any new large animal operations until a stronger regulatory program is developed. “If you’re not willing to do that,” said Michael Stibich, chair of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club, “I’m not willing to take your effort seriously. It is a sham.”

Some farmers, though, worried that the strategy would bring a heavy federal hand into agriculture that would ultimately hurt family farmers and lead to increased government regulations.

“While we are not opposed to regulations that protect the environment, we believe that regulations must be based on sound science,” said Bob Mikesell, representing the Pennsylvania Pork Producers Council. “We oppose any and all instances where the draft strategy allows social policy and unfounded public hysteria to supplant sound science.”

The Nov. 17 session, which took place in Harrisburg, PA, was the second in a series being conducted by the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which jointly drafted the strategy. The only other listening session in the Bay watershed is scheduled for Dec. 15 in Annapolis.

James Lyons, USDA undersecretary for natural resources and the environment, told the roughly 150 participants that the strategy was only a “straw man” and would likely be revised before a final plan is released, probably next spring.

The strategy, which grew out of the Clinton administration’s Clean Water Action Plan, is an attempt to grapple with environmental problems stemming from the rapid growth of increasingly large animal feedlots, which concentrate huge amounts of manure in small areas.

Manure produced at the farms, which sometimes have thousands of animals, has been linked to water pollution and fish kills in North Carolina, Iowa and other areas of the country. Some blame intensive poultry operations on Maryland’s Eastern Shore for contributing to water quality problems blamed for last year’s pfiesteria outbreak.

Although large feedlots have been subject to regulation since the 1972 federal Clean Water Act, they have received little emphasis.

The new strategy would dramatically change that, by requiring all farms with more than 1,000 cows or 100,000 chickens to have a permit, just like a wastewater treatment plant or industry. Smaller feedlots in sensitive watersheds, or where a large number of farms contribute to water impairment, would also need permits.

The strategy also establishes a new Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan that requires all phases of animal nutrients — from what is in the feed, to how waste is stored, to how manure is applied to the land — to be examined.

Such plans would be required for feedlots that need permits. But the strategy also sets a national “performance expectation” that all feedlots voluntarily adopt comprehensive nutrient management plans by 2008.

As written, none of the Bay states would fully meet the requirements of the draft strategy. [See “Strategy would overhaul nutrient management plans,” BAY JOURNAL November 1998 , and “U.S. to require pollution discharge permits at large feedlots,” BAY JOURNAL October 1998 .]

Nationwide, the EPA and the USDA say about 20,000 of the 450,000 animal feeding operations may need permits under the draft program. That is a tenfold increase in the number needing permits today.

At the “listening session,” some argued that the government did not need a large, new federal program to deal with the problem, but instead needed to have the states exercise the authority originally outlined in the Clean Water Act.

“You should back away from this and focus on enforcing the current law,” said Patrick Hooker, of the New York Farm Bureau.

Hooker said the strategy was “overreaching” in many respects. “You are exceeding your authority, frankly, in addressing nonpoint source issues,” he said. “That is a state responsibility.”

But environmentalists said the trend toward huge “factory farms” creates new environmental problems that should be regulated like any other polluter. “Animal factories are industries,” said David Brubaker, director of the Factory Farm Project of the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment. “They are involved in manufacturing just as General Motors makes cars.”

Several speakers expressed fears about plans for large, new animal farms cropping up nearby, bringing odor problems and the risk of water pollution into their communities.

Frederica Barkman, of Clearville, PA, waved a newspaper article detailing the plans of a Maryland interest to build a giant hog operation. “This is going to be in my backyard,” she said. “The quality of my life is going to be at stake.”

“Hog factories are a blight on the environment and a threat to the family farms and all rural residents,” said Karl Novak, another Clearville resident.

Meanwhile, Donald Robinson, of the Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts, said the proposed federal program was a threat to small, family farms because — if they were located in an impaired watershed — they would need permits and implementation of comprehensive nutrient management plans just like big operations. Robinson said small farms in such a situation were at a “distinct disadvantage” with large farms because they were less likely to be able to afford the costs of exporting manure and purchasing chemical fertilizer.

“In fact,” he said, “small operations may have to enlarge in order to compete.”

Dennis Cooper, one of the few farmers who spoke at the session, said his 500-sow operation — which helps support five families — may not be immediately regulated under the program, but he said the prospect of that changing in the future “worries me.”

“A lot of the people here today are not farmers, they do not work with their hands,” said Cooper, adding that the goal of most farmers is to improve the quality of their land. “I think people need to be given a chance to take care of their land, and decide what is best for their land.”

Doug Goodlander, who oversees nutrient management plans for Pennsylvania’s State Conservation Commission, said that — outside permit requirements for the largest farms — the draft strategy does not say who would make decisions about which small farms in sensitive or impaired watersheds would be regulated.

He also said the strategy lacked enough detail about the new comprehensive nutrient management plans to determine whether their requirements would be practical and achievable.

Further, Goodlander questioned whether future funding would be adequate to implement the strategy, especially to provide the technical support needed to develop so many nutrient management plans. “Current levels will not be enough,” he said.

Lamonte Garber, the agricultural specialist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Pennsylvania Office, said the strategy needed to make clear that any minimum standards in the new program should take precedence over weaker nutrient management standards that may be followed by individual states.

He said it was important that some gaps in traditional nutrient management plans, such as dealing with ammonia nitrogen losses to the atmosphere and preventing excessive phosphorus build-up in the soils, should be filled by the federal program.

He also said the program should require nutrient management plans for all farms that receive manure from feedlots, not just for farms that generate the manure. “To continue to exempt these lands creates an incentive for new CAFOs [concentrated animal feeding operations] to own or manage as little land as possible,” Garber said. “This is clearly inconsistent with the goals of the strategy.”

Garber also questioned whether relying so much on voluntary nutrient management plans would achieve the results that officials hope for. He noted that research done in watersheds where nutrient management plans were being implemented showed, at best, “mixed results” in terms of water quality improvements.

Joe DelVecchio, who helped write the draft strategy for the USDA, acknowledged that some studies had not shown improvements but, noting that it often took decades for water quality to become degraded, said it may also take a decade or more to get results.

“Ten years seems like a long time, but it could take at least that long before we begin to see the results,” he said. “It’s a whole different issue than dealing with the end of the pipe.”

The agencies are taking comments on the strategy until Jan. 19. Copies of the draft strategy are available from the EPA’s Water Resource Center at 202-260-7786. Copies are available on the internet at: www.nhq.nrcs.usda.gov/cleanwater/afo