Farm animals in the United States create a 128-billion-pound mountain of manure every year, and the EPA is trying to decide where that manure should be spread, and how deep.
The increasingly large feedlots — called “factory farms” by their critics — are blamed for nutrient runoff that contaminates groundwater and contributes to water pollution problems in the Bay and other coastal waters.
The EPA proposed new regulations late last year that could force thousands of animal operations to get discharge permits, like those issued to industries and sewage plants, and require anyone using feedlot manure to have plans guiding its use on the land.
Many farm organizations have characterized the draft rules as excessively burdensome, while many environmental groups consider them too lax and fear the Bush administration will further weaken the rules.
The EPA was forced to develop the rules because of a suit by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Under a judicial consent decree, the agency must finalize regulations by December 2002.
“This rule will happen,” said Geoffrey Grubbs, director of the Office of Science and Technology in the EPA’s Office of Water. “The question is the shape of the rule.”
He acknowledged, “there is a lot of room to move” before the final rules are issued, but added, “it’s not just a political decision. It’s going to come down to what the data say.”
The draft rules could result in major changes in the way animal waste is managed in the Bay states and elsewhere in the watershed. But maybe not.
The EPA is seeking comments on hundreds of pages of proposed rules, including several regulatory options, which ultimately would determine just how many livestock operations end up being regulated, and what they would have to do.
Some state officials also suggested that the rules could have some benefit to farmers in the Bay region, where the states have stepped up regulatory efforts in recent years, because they would force other regions to take similar actions.
“This will level the playing field to some degree,” said Russ Perkinson, of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. “I think Virginia has got a pretty good permitting program, and I don’t think all states have that. So to the extent that we all compete against each other, it’s good to have a minimum baseline — if you don’t move all the production offshore.”
The EPA estimates there are about 376,000 livestock operations nationwide. But during the past two decades, most of the production has become concentrated in fewer, but larger, operations.
That change has resulted in huge surpluses of manure in some areas. The excess often leads to spills that pollute rivers, or is overapplied to crops, resulting in increased runoff. Nationwide, feedlot owners need only about one-third of the manure produced by their animals to grow crops.
The draft EPA rules could affect up to 10 percent of the feedlots, which generate the vast majority of all animal waste.
Authority to regulate “Confined Animal Feeding Operations” — or CAFOs — has existed since the original Clean Water Act, but fewer than 2,000 feedlots nationwide have permits.
Under the Clean Water Act, a feedlot is a CAFO if is has 1,000 or more “animal units.” An animal unit is 1,000 pounds of animal weight, and is equivalent to about 1,000 beef cattle, 700 dairy cows, 100,000 chickens, 55,000 turkeys or 2,500 hogs.
An animal feeding operation with as few as 300 animal units can also be defined as a CAFO on a case-by-case basis and regulated if it discharges directly into a waterway. In reality, few feedlots with fewer than 1,000 animal units are regulated, according to EPA.
The new rules could change that threshold, but rather than making a specific recommendation, the EPA proposed a two options:
- A three-tier system in which feedlots are CAFOs if they have more than 1,000 animal units, or if they have more than 300 units and meet certain conditions. All farmers with 300–1,000 animal units would have to take the initiative to certify that they did not meet the CAFO definition, or they would have to apply for a permit. According to the EPA, about 19,000 of the nation’s 26,000 mid-size feedlots would need to change their management practices to avoid a permit.
- A new two-tier system in which a feedlot is a CAFO if it has more than 500 animal units, or is designated as a CAFO by a state agency. Five hundred animal units is equivalent to about 500 cattle, 350 dairy cows or 50,000 chickens.
Depending on which definition is adopted, the EPA estimates the rules would regulate 5–10 percent of animal feedlots, but — because of the size of the operations — would affect 58–72 percent of all animal manure.
The proposed regulations contain other major changes. For example, existing rules do not cover dry manure from poultry houses, which actually generate 95 percent of chicken manure. The new regulations would cover both wet and dry poultry wastes.
Existing regulations exempt facilities from regulation if they only discharge as a result of a relatively rare “25-year, 24-hour” storm. The proposed regulations would discard that exemption for poultry and hog operations, where animals are usually indoors, but not for dairy and beef operations, where animals are often outside.
CAFOs would have zero discharge requirements for swine, veal and poultry operations. And, it sets technical standards that would have to be met for all new and existing CAFOs. For hog operations, that means they must cover large manure storage lagoons so they do not flood during storms, something that has led to fish kills in North Carolina and elsewhere.
The proposed rules cover not only discharges from feedlots, but expand regulations to cover the use of manure as fertilizer. In the past, manure was often overapplied to farmland, basically as a means of disposal — often resulting in water pollution. The new rules require that nutrient plans be developed to set application rates based on the needs of crops being grown.
In addition, when the animals are owned by a processing company that has “substantial operational control” over the farmers raising the animals, the processor must be co-permitted so responsibility for handling the manure is shared.
The EPA also wants to keep track of what ultimately happens to manure that is transferred off site. Its draft regulations proposes two options: Recipients would have to certify they were applying at proper rates unless there is a state program for addressing excess manure, or as a second option, certification would not be required but the CAFO operators would have to keep records of all manure transferred off site.
The regulations would prohibit the application of manure at a CAFO within 100 feet of a stream, although chemical fertilizer could be used closer to the waterway.
Officials in all the Bay states said the rules would likely mean some changes in their programs. But because of the variety of options proposed by the EPA, they say it’s difficult to gauge the extent of their changes.
Some proposals could dramatically affect farmers. For example, the 100-foot stream setback for manure application could be a major change for many farmers.
EPA officials say that setback is needed to not only keep nutrients out of the stream, but to also to protect waterways from pathogens that could be present in wastes and contaminate any downstream water supplies.
But the idea of spreading two types of fertilizers — chemical fertilizers closer to stream and manure farther upland — could be a logistical nightmare for farmers, especially in Pennsylvania, which has more than 83,000 miles of streams — the most of any state except Alaska.
“You’re telling a guy who has too much manure to not use that manure, pay to ship it off the farm, and pay to bring fertilizer in when they have plenty of nutrients available to them,” said Doug Goodlander of the Pennsylvania State Conservation Commission. “That’s a hard sell.”
Another big change — especially for Pennsylvania — is that the federal program would require that manure be applied based on the phosphorus needs of a crop.
The nitrogen-based plans now used in the state generally allow more manure to be applied per acre. Goodlander, though, said the state was already exploring moving toward phosphorus-based nutrient management plans.
Pennsylvania already requires federal National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits and uses a three-tiered system like that proposed by the EPA.
Virginia’s poultry law, passed by the General Assembly last year, affects all poultry operations with 200 animal units or more, and requires that manure be applied according to phosphorus-based management plans. But Virginia issues a state permit, not an NPDES permit — which would also be enforced by the EPA — as is called for by the draft regulations.
“Since our poultry law passed, we’re probably in pretty decent shape,” said Russ Perkinson, of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. “But we would probably have to redo our permitting system.”
Perkinson said the requirement for phosphorus-based nutrient management plans would impact hog and dairy operations, which were not affected by the poultry law. That requirement would be tougher for hog operations because they typically have less land, Perkinson said.
And the zero discharge requirement for hog operations would require new investments at many of those farms.
“It doesn’t matter how much rain you get,” said Richard Ayers, of the Department of Environmental Quality. “You might get a 100-year rainfall. You still can’t have a discharge.”
In Maryland, the state’s proposed new co-permitting program, which regulates farmers who grow chickens through permits issued to the three large poultry processors that own the birds, would effectively cover almost all chicken operations with an NPDES permit, said Tom Simpson, water quality coordinator with the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
But if the state program is not finalized, the federal program could bring significant changes for chicken producers because the state’s CAFO threshold is 1,000 animal units, Simpson added.
The new, lower, federal CAFO thresholds would also affect dairy operations in the state.
Older dairy operations where streams wind through animal congregating areas may need to make additional changes to comply with the federal rules. “We have a lot of old dairies that have streams flowing right through their loafing areas,” Simpson said.
Also, he said, the nutrient management requirements of the federal program may be broader than the requirements of the state program.
Maryland already has phosphorus-based nutrient management plans.
Across the nation, many states are pressing the EPA to accept state programs that regulate animal wastes that are “functionally equivalent” to the federal program — that is, they achieve the same end result even if programs are implemented differently from what is prescribed by the EPA.
Environmental groups generally oppose functional equivalency because it could result in uneven programs, and could limit the EPA’s ability to step in if a state program is poorly implemented.
Environmental groups have argued that the rules regulate too few operations and fail to address emerging issues such as air pollution from feedlots or the use of antibiotics and other chemicals, which can enter water supplies.
Grubbs, of the EPA, said because the authority for the draft regulations stemmed from the Clean Water Act, the rules could not deal with air issues, but said those could be handled through separate rules in the future.
The growing use of antibiotics to keep animals in tightly packed feedlots free of disease has been a growing concern among some, as the antibiotics are released through animal wastes. “There is cause for concern,” Grubbs said, “But to my view, the evidence is anecdotal. It is not well-established in the science.”
Further, he said, the regulation of antibiotics may need to be done through the Food and Drug Administration, not the EPA.
Even as environmental groups criticized the proposed rules for being weak, several industry groups criticized them for being heavy-handed. The National Chicken Council criticized co-permitting, saying it was unreasonable for companies to try to keep tabs on the operations of their many contractors growing chickens.
Bill Satterfield, of the Delmarva Poultry Institute, said the rules treat farmers like “industrial strength polluters” and said farmers would have difficulty finding the thousands of dollars they would need to spend to comply with the new rules.
The EPA contends its economic analysis indicates compliance should be affordable for farmers. Nationwide, it estimates the rule would cost CAFO operators $850 million to $940 million a year, depending on which proposals are finalized.
Whatever program emerges, state and federal officials stressed that no changes would happen overnight. When the final rule is established at the end of next year, it could immediately affect new CAFOs, but older ones would have at least three years to come into compliance.
“We have plenty of time to work through it, understand it and implement it,” Ayers said. “I don’t think people should panic over this thing. In Virginia, our program won’t change before late 2005 or 2006.”
The EPA is taking comments on its proposed CAFO rules though July 30. Copies of the rules and background information are available on the EPA Office of Wastewater Management’s web site at www.epa.gov/owm/afo.htm
Bay states agree to animal waste transport policy
In an effort to reduce the buildup of animal manure in some areas, the Bay states recently signed an agreement to voluntarily monitor the use of animal waste transferred between Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
While promoting the removal of wastes, the memorandum of understanding signed by the states requires the programs in each state to make sure that transported waste is applied at proper rates, regardless of its origin or destination.
The agreement requires that if states offer an incentive to farmers to transfer wastes, the state must require that adherence to the nutrient management practices of the receiving state be a condition for receiving the incentive.
In addition, the states agreed to annually exchange information about the quantity and destination of animal waste transferred out of a state as the result of an incentive program.
“The transport of animal waste for fertilizer or other uses takes on added importance as we continue efforts to restore water quality in the Bay and the rivers that feed it,” said David Brickley, director of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, and chairman of the Bay Program task force that wrote the agreement.
“This memorandum of understanding helps to ensure these wastes are used to effectively add nutrients to croplands, and not to nearby waters,” Brickley said.