The federal government has finalized its strategy to reduce pollution from the 1.37 billion tons of manure produced on farms each year that threatens the Bay and other waterways.

In a change from a draft animal feedlot plan released last fall, the new strategy says the large livestock integrators — processing companies that often own animals but contract with farmers to raise them — should share responsibility for meeting regulatory requirements.

In another change from the draft, the strategy said states should immediately begin issuing discharge permits to new, large operations. New farms without permits could be liable for any pollution from the date the strategy was released — March 9.

Under the strategy, about 5 percent of the 450,000 animal feeding operations nationwide will need to get discharge permits like those issued to industries and wastewater treatment plants. They would also have to implement comprehensive plans to guide the storage and use of manure.

The Unified National Strategy for Animal Feeding Operations, which was jointly developed by the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was finalized after a 120-day comment period on a draft plan released last September.

As part of the strategy, all animal feeding operations will be encouraged to implement “comprehensive nutrient management plans” by 2009 — one year later than what was in the draft strategy.

Although the strategy calls for increased spending on incentive programs to encourage nutrient plan implementation, the final strategy dropped language that suggested such plans would be needed for farmers to participate in various federal agricultural assistance programs.

“This comprehensive strategy forges a new partnership with American agriculture to tackle a major threat to water quality,” Vice President Al Gore said in announcing the final strategy. “It recognizes that the vast majority of livestock operators can be better stewards through voluntary measures, but sets tough standards for the largest operations to ensure that our water quality goals are met.”

While the strategy develops the framework for controlling pollution from feedlots, the final details have to be worked out in yet-to-be-written regulations that would implement the strategy.

“Really, it is the beginning of the process,” said Mike Hirshfield, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “It’s the variety of decisions that will be made in the next few years that will determine how good the program is.”

Meanwhile, agricultural groups, some environmental groups and lawmakers found things they don’t like in the strategy.

Hearings in Congress are considered likely. Rep. Larry Combest, R-TX, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, promised in a statement that his panel “will scrutinize this very closely.”

Rep. Bud Shuster, R-PA, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which oversees the Clean Water Act, said the legal basis for the strategy was “questionable.” He said the plan relies on “novel, broad interpretations” of the act.

“The administration is on extremely thin legal ice,” agreed Dean Kleckner, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. “They are moving ahead to implement this strategy regardless of congressional intent, and in light of valid questions about their statutory authority to do so.

“We question whether the EPA’s true motive might be little more than controlling land use,” he added. “This flies in the face of the Clean Water Act, which gives states the authority to address and prioritize environmental risks associated with water quality.”

Kleckner issued a statement saying the administration was “distorting the scope of water quality issues related to livestock farms.” He said efforts should be focused on areas with clear water quality problems, rather than “throwing a costly regulatory blanket over the countryside” — especially at a time when many farmers are struggling financially. Regulations that increase costs, he said, could end up sending livestock operations overseas.

Tom Simpson, of the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said the strategy would probably put small farmers at a disadvantage. “Any time you regulate, you favor the larger operation that has the resources that can address them,” he said.

Some environmental groups, meanwhile, criticized the plan for failing to establish a moratorium on new “factory farms” until regulations are developed. They also said the plan did not go far enough to curb air pollution or protect groundwater around large animal operations.

“The Clinton administration’s proposal for livestock factories is a mixed bag,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. “The administration plan tackles a terrible problem, but fails to offer solutions for the most troubling air and water pollution aspects of these livestock factories.”

In the strategy, the EPA acknowledged that groundwater contamination from animal feedlots is a concern, and that the agency “intends to address this issue in future regulations.”

While the strategy does not call for a moratorium while regulations are developed, it does say that all large new facilities, or smaller operations that could threaten water quality, should begin getting permits immediately.

All large animal feeding operations that begin after the date of the plan “are subject to enforcement action if they discharge without a permit,” the strategy states.

Hirshfield said that would offer some relief to property owners who suddenly find a large animal feedlot is planned next door as they would now have the right to review and comment on any draft permits written for the facilities.

“It’s not quite a moratorium, but it’s basically getting at the fundamental issue, which is not making the problem worse while we try to address the existing problem,” Hirshfield said. “It certainly does reflect a recognition that big animal operations are factory operations and need to be treated as factory operations.”

Pollution from animal feeding operations has been a growing concern across the nation and within the watershed. In the past year, both Maryland and Virginia have passed laws aimed at reducing pollution from feedlots, and Pennsylvania is developing a new permit program for such operations.

The trend in recent years has been toward more animals being grown on fewer farms. In some cases, that results in more manure accumulating in an area than is needed as fertilizer by surrounding farmland.

That excess creates the potential for a variety of water pollution problems. Nutrients from manure can enter waterways and create algae blooms which result in poor water quality, as is the case in the Chesapeake. Some evidence suggests the nutrients may be fueling a trend toward more harmful algae blooms worldwide.

Nitrogen from the wastes can seep into the groundwater, elevating nitrate levels in drinking water, which poses a threat to human health. Pathogens in manure, such as Cryptosporidium, can also threaten human health if they enter drinking water supplies, while other pathogens can contaminate shellfish beds, forcing their closure. Some recent studies have also raised concerns about the impacts from the toxics, antibiotics and various hormones that can seep out of animal wastes and into the water.

The new strategy was developed in response to the Clean Water Action Plan, released last year, which sought to address various forms of runoff pollution. Runoff from agriculture, cities and other land uses is considered the largest remaining threat to many water bodies.

Agriculture is a major source of nutrients to the Chesapeake, accounting for more than half of the phosphorus and about 44 percent of the nitrogen that enters the Bay, according to Bay Program figures.

Although states have had the authority to regulate large animal feedlots for years, only about 2,000 permits have been issued. None of the Bay states has an animal feedlot permitting program as broad as what is envisioned in the strategy.

The strategy calls for feedlots with more than 1,000 cattle or 30,000 hogs to be issued a discharge permit that would set limits on what could enter waterways. In addition, smaller feedlots that pose a water quality threat, or are on “impaired” waterways, would also need permits.

The strategy is vague, though, in regard to chickens. The Clean Water Act offers the authority to regulate discharges, which applies to the wet wastes produced by hogs and cows, but not necessarily the dry “litter” from chickens. The strategy indicates that large facilities with 100,000 or more chickens that store waste outdoors — where it could be exposed to rain — are regulated, but is less clear in other situations.

Many chickens and hogs grown today are actually owned by large processing companies that lease the animals to farmers to rear. The final strategy said the corporations that exercise “substantial control” over a feedlot operation should be “co-permitted,” although it doesn’t describe how that would work.

The draft strategy had been criticized by some for placing too much burden on farmers, and not enough responsibility on the companies that actually own the animals.

Besides permits, the operations would need to implement “comprehensive nutrient management plans,” that address “as necessary” all phases of animal-related nutrients, from what is in the feed, to how manure is handled and stored, to the way it is placed on the land.

The nutrient management plans outlined in the strategy are generally broader than those typically required in the Bay states. [See “Strategy would overhaul nutrient management plans,” Bay Journal, November 1998.]

For smaller operations that do not need permits, the strategy establishes a “national performance expectation” that they will develop and implement comprehensive nutrient management plans by 2009. To reach that goal, the strategy calls for increasing the number of specialists available to help write plans, and increasing funding for incentive programs that would help farmers implement plans.

That would reverse the recent trend in which both technical and financial assistance has declined. “I think the education component of it is critical,” said MDA’s Simpson. The commitment in the strategy is “good talk,” he said, “But let’s see the effort here.”

Details of how the strategy — especially the permit aspects — will be implemented will emerge in coming months as the EPA and USDA develop model permits, regulations and other guidance related to the program.

Overall, the strategy estimates that about 5 percent — or 20,000 — of existing operations nationwide, will need permits, which the strategy says should be issued by the end of 2004.

That number could increase in the future. After 2005, the strategy calls on states to begin reissuing and updating permits that were issued during the first round of permit writing. The second round of permits, the strategy says, “should address any additional requirements necessary to meet water quality goals and objectives.”

The EPA is in the process of writing its first criteria for the nutrients, phosphorus and nitrogen. States are to adopt their own nutrient standards based on that criteria. When the standards are in place, they have the potential to increase the number of impaired waterways, and therefore increase the number of feedlot operations that need permits.