The federal government has moved to begin requiring pollution discharge permits — like those issued to wastewater treatment plants and factories — for thousands of large animal feedlots across the nation.

In regulations proposed by the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in September, the agencies estimate that between 15,000 and 20,000 “confined animal feeding operations” will need the permits. Only about 2,000 have such permits now.

While the federal and state governments have regulated such facilities in the past, state requirements vary widely. Federal authorities have said a single standard is needed to prevent companies from seeking out lax states and to keep areas equal economically.

Under the new proposal, permits will be required at all operations with more than 1,000 “animal equivalent units” — about 1,000 beef cattle, or 100,000 chickens — as well as at smaller operations located in sensitive watersheds or which pose particularly high threats to water quality.

The proposed national strategy for animal feedlots was a follow-up to the Clean Water Action Plan unveiled earlier this year, which provided a blueprint for new efforts to clean up the nation’s waterways, largely by controlling runoff pollution, much of which comes from agriculture.

“Today, this administration is taking a major step toward that goal by working together to curb a significant source of water pollution — animal wastes that run off into our waterways,” said EPA Administrator Carol Browner. “This draft plan is the most aggressive strategy ever proposed to address this problem and protect our nation’s rivers, lakes and streams.”

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman pledged that the final regulations would be a “customer-driven strategy” based on comments received during a four-month comment period that began Sept. 17.

Large animal feeding operations, which have been proliferating throughout the region and the nation in recent years, have become a magnet for environmental concerns because they lead to huge accumulations of nutrient-rich animal wastes in relatively small areas that can cause serious pollution problems.

Excess nutrients from manure and fertilizers are a major source of water pollution to the Bay and other water bodies. Some pathogens from manure, such as Cryptosporidium, can have deadly results if they invade water supplies, as happened in Milwaukee several years ago. And nutrients from large-scale livestock operations have been blamed by some for contributing to the outbreak of fish-killing pfiesteria in the Chesapeake Bay and North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound.

Besides requiring permits at the estimated 10,000 feedlots nationwide with 1,000 or more animal units, the strategy would also require permits for smaller facilities that:

  • Discharge animal wastes directly into waterways that flow through the facility, or have manmade conveyances that discharge wastes to a nearby waterway;
  • Represent a significant risk to water quality or public health; or
  • Individually, or as a collection of small feedlots, significantly contribute to the impairment of a waterbody that is failing to meet its designated use.

The EPA and the USDA estimate that those two categories will result in permits at an additional 5,000 to 10,000 feedlots.

Besides getting discharge permits, regulated operations will also be required to develop and implement nutrient management plans to guide the storage and application of manure.

Still, the strategy calls for voluntary measures at the vast majority of the nation’s 450,000 feedlot operations, about 85 percent of which have fewer than 250 animal units, as its primary means to protect waterways.

For example, it sets a “national expectation” that all animal feeding operations will develop nutrient management plans by 2008. Only about 150,000 feedlots now have nutrient management plans, according to the draft strategy.

Wide adoption of the strategy’s nutrient management plan criteria would be a dramatic change for the Bay region, said Tom Simpson, of the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

The strategy’s concept of nutrient management encompasses everything from animal feed to manure storage to the placement of animal wastes on fields.

“It’s far broader than we’ve typically considered to be nutrient management in the Bay Program,” Simpson said. “It is basically everything. Efforts here have focused mainly on manure application in the field.

One industry official questioned whether the agencies have the legal authority to create such regulations.

“If they want to change the regulations or change the law they need to either go to Congress or through the federal regulatory process,” said Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Broiler Council. Lobb said his organization had not taken a position on the draft.

John Pemberton, associate director of environmental quality for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said his group wants to work with federal authorities but also wants to ensure that “we’re not duplicating what already exists.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation criticized the strategy for failing to address the role of large processors, which often own chickens and other livestock, but contract with farmers to grow the animals.

“We’re glad to see that the EPA and the USDA are finally recognizing that animal waste is a national problem, but we’re disappointed that they have left the big companies that own the animals out of the strategy,” said CBF President William Baker.

“We continue to believe that the companies that own the birds and the pigs need to take responsibility for polluted waste instead of saddling the growers with the costs,” Baker said. “Farmers should not be forced to bear all the costs of solving the large poultry and livestock companies’ problems. This issue is still not being adequately addressed.”

The EPA reportedly sought to have large companies pay for waste-management programs, but was opposed by the USDA. Michael McCabe, administrator of EPA Region III, which includes all the Bay states, recently expressed his fear that “this whole environmental problem is going to land on the backs of growers.”

Exactly what the strategy’s impact on the Bay states regulatory programs will be is unclear. All the states either have, or are considering, their own permit programs for the largest feedlots, although the new strategy could extend that coverage to more farms, especially in environmentally sensitive areas.

To be successful, the draft strategy says some long-term “strategic” issues must be addressed. For example, to have nutrient management plans on all farms by 2008, more qualified specialists will be needed to help develop the plans, and new incentive programs may be needed to encourage plan development.

To measure the success of the program, the USDA and the EPA will estimate by 2000 the baseline nutrient loads to watersheds. They will use that figure to monitor feedlots to see if excess nutrients are being reduced over time.

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

Nutrient Management Plan Components

The draft animal feedlot strategy establishes a “national performance expectation” that all feedlot owners will develop and implement technically sound and economically feasible comprehensive nutrient management plans. The plans envisioned in the strategy are much broader than those typically developed in the Bay watershed, which usually focus only on the land application of nutrients The elements of new plans are to include:

Feed Management: Where possible, animal diets and feed should be modified to reduce the amounts of nutrients in manure.

Manure Handling and Storage: Manure needs to be handled and stored properly to prevent water pollution from runoff and to reduce the potential for nutrient release into the air.

Land Application of Manure: Land application is the most common, and usually most desirable method, of using manure because of the value of the nutrients and organic matter. Land application in accordance with the comprehensive nutrient management plan should minimize water quality and public health risk.

Land Management: Tillage, crop residue management, grazing management and other conservation practices should be used to minimize the movement of soil, organic materials, nutrients and pathogens to surface and ground water from lands where manure is applied.

Record Keeping: Feedlot operators should keep records that indicate the quantity of manure produced and ultimate use, including where, when and amount of nutrients applied.

Other Utilization Options: In vulnerable watersheds, where the potential for environmentally sound land application is limited, alternative uses of manure, such as the sale of manure to other farmers, composting and sale of compost to home owners, and using manure for power generation may need to be considered.