Shenandoah area switches to innovative wastewater treatment

On a riverside farm in the Shenandoah Valley, poultry company executives, town mayors and a group of farmers announced their involvement in an innovative wastewater treatment project.

They plan to shut down four municipal treatment plants that pour waste-water into a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay and switch to a private system that will reclaim the water and use it for irrigating fields.

"In addition to cleaning up the river, it's going to enhance crop production," said Jerry Rainey, a farmer and retired aerospace engineer who played host at the gathering.

"This is a home run," said Gerald McCarthy, director of the Virginia Environmental Endowment. "It's one of those wonderful win-win situations, with businesses, governments and conservation groups working together and finding that you can save money and save the environment."

The presidents of the poultry companies, WLR Foods and Rocco, and the town managers in Timberville and Broadway said the private reclamation and reuse system run by Sheaffer International will save money in the long run.

"It's an unusual opportunity to improve the environment while providing cost-effective sewer service to our customers," Broadway Mayor Wanda Wilt said.

Rainey and six other farmers, who have had significant crop loss because of this year's drought, have signed contracts with Sheaffer to let the company use most of the treated water to irrigate their fields for 25 years.

The towns' four wastewater plants are discharging more than 200,000 pounds of nitrogen and phosphorous a year into the north fork of the Shenandoah River, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay via the Potomac River. The nutrients cause excessive algae growth, which robs the water of sunlight and oxygen and makes it hard for bottom-growing plants and many animals to thrive.

"That's a huge chunk of what's going into the Chesapeake Bay," McCarthy said.

The Virginia Environmental Endowment spent $10,000 on a study of the Sheaffer system to see if it was environmentally sound and cost-effective. The organization endorsed the project and said the switch could help the state meet its goals for reducing nutrient pollution in the Chesapeake.

The burgeoning poultry industry in Virginia, which came up with the waste water treatment idea, has come under increasing pressure to reduce its contribution to the pollution problem.

Sheaffer Vice President John Johnson said this will be the largest wastewater reclamation and reuse system in the Mid-Atlantic region and the first in which a private company will provide treatment to both industry and local governments.

Sheaffer, based in Naperville, IL, operates 60 similar systems, primarily in the Midwest. The system uses extended treatment times and natural biological processes to clean the water. It eliminates the generation of odors and sludge, which has to be sent to landfills or spread on land, he said.

"The only thing that will be in our water is a little nitrogen and phosphorous, nutrients that make plants grow," Johnson said. The company is planning to begin building the system in the spring and treating water next fall.

VA to regulate poultry waste

A Virginia Senate committee has approved legislation to regulate poultry waste in that state after its sponsor said environmentalists and poultry farmers had agreed to a compromise.

The poultry bill sponsor, Del. Tayloe Murphy, D-Westmoreland, told the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee that the compromise resulted from difficult and lengthy negotiations.

The bill directs the State Water Control Board to develop a regulatory program for poultry waste. The state already regulates hog and cattle waste.

All poultry growers with more than 20,000 chickens or turkeys would have to comply with the regulations no later than July 1, 2001.

The bill would require:

  • Waste tracking and accounting and proper storage;
  • Nutrient management plans for poultry farmers that must address the runoff of phosphorus; (The bill would take into account previous voluntary efforts by poultry growers to reduce pollution.) and
  • Poultry operators to provide a waste hot-line and a matching grant program with the state for waste transport and alternative uses.

Farmers had argued against regulation, saying they were doing all they could to avoid environmental problems.

EPA says VA left waterways off pollution list

Virginia officials knowingly left parts of the Chesapeake Bay and three rivers off a list of polluted waterways this year, according to the EPA.

While the EPA says that stemmed from "a professional disagreement" over reporting requirements, it is demanding a correction. That could press Virginia to take stronger actions against industries, farms and sewage plants that discharge excessive nutrients into rivers and streams that feed the Bay.

The EPA wants the state Department of Environmental Quality to add the waterways to its 1998 list of "impaired waters." The affected areas are the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay from the Maryland line to Cherrystone Inlet on Virginia's Eastern Shore and tidal sections of the Rappahannock, York and Elizabeth rivers.

In a Nov. 16 letter, the EPA's regional administrator, W. Michael McCabe, wrote that Virginia had failed to include the Bay and other waterways on the list despite "water quality data and other information that shows those waters are impaired."

"We don't think they (Virginia) have a choice," said Tom Conlon, an EPA environmental engineer in Philadelphia. "If the waterway is impaired - and there's years and years of data on the Chesapeake Bay - you have to list it."

Ron Gregory, state director of water quality assessment, said the omissions were an agency decision based on science and common sense. He said Virginia is already tackling the two problems in the Bay and its tidal tributaries that concern the EPA: low levels of oxygen and high amounts of nutrients.

The strategy includes upgrading sewage treatment plants and encouraging farmers to curb fertilizer and pesticide runoff. Therefore, the state did not think it needed to list those afflicted waters, he said.

Virginia released its 1998 list of impaired waterways in April. It concluded that more than 2,100 miles of freshwater streams and 157 square miles of tidal estuaries were polluted with one or more contaminants. The Bay was not included, nor was it included in the 1996 report, which the EPA approved, Gregory said.

All states must complete such a list every two years and develop plans, known as Total Maximum Daily Load, to control the pollutants causing the impairments.

Factory farms pollute waterways, national study says

A national study of pollution caused by factory farming credited Maryland with taking some steps to protect the environment, but said the state suffers from some of same problems as other states across the country.

The report released in December by Clean Water Network and the Natural Resources Defense Council said federal and state governments have done a poor job regulating large-scale hog and poultry farms and cattle operations, which are rapidly replacing smaller family farms.

The result is the increasingly serious pollution of waterways and underground water supplies, which are a threat to public health, the report said.

Maryland is the only state to regulate the application of phosphorus to fields, but the report noted that the regulations approved by the 1998 General Assembly will not take effect for seven years. It also said the law does not apply to large poultry companies, which own chickens raised under contract by individual farmers.

Christopher Bedford of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club said the report "highlights the failure of government to regulate and to protect human health and the water. "I think it shows that Maryland is ahead in terms of nutrient runoff. But the problem is much bigger than just phosphorus and nitrogen."

Thomas Grasso, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the report shows that pollution from big factory farms can only be controlled with a national approach.

The No. 1 recommendation in the national report was for a moratorium on Clean Water Act permits for new and expanding factory farms until all existing facilities have effective permits in place, and regulatory standards are upgraded.

Representatives of Maryland environmental groups said that supports their call for a three-year state moratorium on new or expanded operations involving more than 50,000 chickens or more than 1,250 hogs.

Worth Noting:

  • Bay Pollution Hotline. Environmental scofflaws, beware. Federal officials hope people will call a toll-free number when they spot environmental no-nos like dumping oil or gasoline in the Chesapeake. The 24-hour phone line is part of an initiative called the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Enforcement Coalition being spearheaded by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Baltimore. Tips will be forwarded to federal, state and local officials. The federal hot line number is 800-377-5879.
  • Land Preservation Milestone. The Maryland Environmental Trust is expected to receive development rights for more than 5,000 acres by the end of the year. That's about 500 acres more than in 1997. The new land will bring the holdings of the trust to more than 65,000 acres, said director John Bernstein. "It looks as if it might be a record year," he said. "We're now the third biggest holder of donated easements in the United States."