A gricultural animals produce about 500 million tons of manure annually in the United States — more than three times as much as humans — but the disposal of that waste has gone largely unregulated for decades.

The result is a nutrient buildup that is a major contributor to water quality problems in the Bay and other waterways.

In December, the EPA unveiled new regulations that will require about 15,500 livestock operations nationwide to get discharge permits and implement plans governing how manure is used as fertilizer.

Although large feedlots, known as confined animal feeding operations or CAFOs, have fallen under the Clean Water Act for more than a quarter century, only about 4,500 of 238,000 animal feeding operations nationwide actually have permits.

Under the new rules, fewer than 10 percent of all animal operations will need permits, but the EPA estimates that those facilities account for nearly 60 percent of all livestock wastes.

“This new rule is a historic step forward in our efforts to make America’s waters cleaner and purer,” said EPA Administrator Christie Whitman in releasing the rules Dec. 16. “It will help reduce what has been a growing problem — the fact that animal waste generated by concentrated animal feeding operations poses an increasing threat to the health of America’s waters.”

The rule expands the scope of federal regulations far beyond what had been required the last quarter century by expanding regulatory authority to include large poultry producers and requiring that all large livestock operations develop nutrient management plans to help ensure manure is not overapplied.

But the rules, in a number of respects, were weaker than those the EPA had originally proposed two years ago, and were sharply criticized by many environmental groups.

“The Bush administration is perpetuating a system where corporate agribusiness can reap huge profits from factory farming and avoid responsibility for the pollution they generate,” said Ken Midkiff, director of the Sierra Club’s Factory Farm Campaign. “Why should taxpayers have to pay for the mess they make?”

Nutrient-laden animal manure has posed a growing problem as the industry has trended to fewer, but larger operations. Unlike the past, when farms often grew most of their own feed using animal wastes as fertilizer, many of today’s large animal operations no longer have enough land to effectively use manure as a fertilizer, resulting in a concentration of nutrients

Since 1982, the farm animal population has grown by 51 percent, according to the EPA, but during that same time the amount of cropland and pastureland controlled by those farms declined from an average of 3.6 acres to 2.2 acres per 1,000 pounds of live animal weight.

As a result, many farms import their food rather than grow it, leading to a surplus of manure. A typical poultry farm today can use only about 10 percent of the nitrogen it produces, according to the EPA. The situation is most acute in the Southeast and mid-Atlantic regions which had the largest increase in excess nutrients from 1982 through 1997, largely because of the growing number of hog and poultry operations in those regions.

All three Bay States are considered to be of “particular concern” because of their potential for county-level excess manure nutrients. Nationwide, about 165 counties in the Unites States produce excess nitrogen in animal wastes, while 374 counties produce excess phosphorus.

“If current trends in the livestock and poultry industry continue, more manure will be produced in areas without the physical capacity to agronomically use all the nutrients contained in that manure,” the EPA said in putting forth the new rule, which was developed in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Excess manure enters waterways through runoff and erosion; overflows from lagoons and spills that leach into soil and groundwater; and the volatilization of compounds into the air. Nationwide, spills from animal operations have been linked to fish kills involving millions of fish; groundwater pollution; the contamination of water with pathogens that threaten human health; and excess algae blooms in the Bay and other coastal areas that have led to oxygen-depleted “dead zones.” As a result, the EPA said, agricultural operations including CAFOs account for a “significant share of the remaining water pollution problems in the United States.”

But the EPA estimated that, nationwide, the new rules would reduce the amount of nutrients released into the environment by 24 percent, slashing phosphorus by about 56 million pounds a year, and nitrogen by more than 100 million pounds.

Farm groups generally said the regulations would add to production costs, but said it was an improvement over the draft released two years ago.

“Regrettably, this rule will add increased costs to producers at a time of dismally low prices,” said Jerry Kozak, president of the National Milk Producers Federation. “However, this final regulation is not as problematic as the initial draft of the CAFO regulation, so we are relieved that the EPA and USDA have mitigated some of the more onerous approaches they were first pursuing.”

The EPA estimated that the rules would cost about $335 million annually to implement, a sharp drop from the $840 million to $950 million it had estimated two years ago. Much of the increased costs will be offset by increased conservation program funding in the 2002 Farm Bill, federal officials said.

Under the new rules, a CAFO is a farm that has more than 1,000 cattle, 700 dairy cows, 2,500 swine, 10,000 sheep, 125,000 chickens, 82,000 laying hens or 55,000 turkeys in confinement.

All CAFOs are required to have discharge permits by the end of 2006. As part of the permit, they must also write and implement a nutrient management plan for all the land they control. The plan determines the appropriate amount of nutrients needed based on soil conditions and the type of crops being grown.

As part of the nutrient management process, CAFOs must maintain information about expected crop yields, dates of manure applications, weather conditions during applications, manure tests, soil tests, calculations of nitrogen and phosphorus applications, and additional details. The final rule did not require that the plans be produced by certified professionals.

Smaller operations could also be affected if the state issuing the permit determines an animal farm is causing a water pollution problem, or if the EPA determines they are contributing to a downstream problem in another state.

Besides requiring nutrient management plans, the new rules erased a previous exemption for CAFOs that discharged polluted runoff only during large storms. Now, all CAFOs must have a permit unless they can prove they would never discharge. Also, the regulations now cover poultry operations, which had been exempt.

Under the new rules, CAFOs will generally need to establish a 100-foot setback from streams where no manure can be applied, although they may take alternative actions, such as establishing a 35-foot vegetated buffer strip.

New confinement facilities for swine, veal and poultry operations — which are usually enclosed — will be required to have zero discharge. Waste storage facilities for new operations must be able to contain manure during a 100-year storm.

One significant change is that the final rules dropped a provision from the proposed version that generally would have required nutrient management plans to be based on the phosphorus needs of the crops.

Phosphorus-based plans generally allow less manure to be applied to the field than plans based on nitrogen needs.

The new rules require that land be tested for its ability to hold phosphorus, but the decisions are left up to states. Tom Simpson, of the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and chair of the Bay Program’s Nutrient Subcommittee, said that could put farmers in the Chesapeake region at an economic disadvantage if other states do not require phosphorus-based plans.

Maryland already requires that nutrient management plans be phosphorus-based, and Virginia requires it for poultry operations. Pennsylvania has been looking at switching to phosphorus-based plans.

But, Simpson said, “their presumption was that this was the way everything was going all around the country.”

“We have now created a nationally sanctioned uneven playing field,” he said. “That will make it very difficult for those doing phosphorus plans to keep doing them.”

Environmental groups were critical of the rule for dropping some other proposals put forth two years ago.
The EPA decided not to prohibit manure from being applied to frozen, snow-covered, or saturated ground — where the potential for runoff is great — because it would have required, in some cases, that CAFOs construct enough storage capacity to hold a year’s worth of manure. But the EPA said states could still make such requirements when issuing permits.

The EPA also rejected an earlier proposal that sought to prevent the contamination of groundwater beneath animal confinement areas, saying geology and other variables leading to groundwater pollution were “so variable from site to site that a national technology-based standard is inappropriate.”

In addition, the final rule dropped a proposal that would have required processing companies with “substantial operational control” over farms to be co-permitted with the farmers actually raising the animals so that the responsibility for handling the manure would be shared.

Of particular concern, the regulations did not address air pollution from animal operations — especially ammonia, which is a major portion of the nitrogen reaching the Bay as a result of air pollution. A National Academy of Sciences report released only days before the new rules confirmed that large animal farms were major sources of air pollution and suggested that the EPA take action to control their emissions.

Although the EPA originally proposed requiring lagoons that store animal wastes to be covered, which would have reduced ammonia volatilization, the final rules determined that retrofitting existing storage structures with covers “is not economically achievable.”

“Factory farms discharge a staggering amount of contaminants into the atmosphere, and the EPA regulations fail to seriously address air emissions and their well-documented impacts on public health and water quality,” said Dean Whittle, senior attorney with the group Environmental Defense. “The new rules are a major step backward.”

The EPA argued that it did not have authority to regulate air emissions in a water regulation.