EPA proposes broad curbs on farm runoff Most of Maryland's poultry operations would be covered

Water pollution targeted

Livestock growers treated like industry

governor hails plan

March 06, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer David Folkenflik contributed to this article.

Most of Maryland's poultry-raising operations would be regulated as potential sources of water pollution under an Environmental Protection Agency proposal to curb runoff from the nation's livestock feedlots.

The proposal, unveiled yesterday and scheduled to go into effect between 2002 and 2005, would treat large-scale growers of cattle, pigs and poultry as potential polluters, just like industry. Large livestock-raising operations would have to get federal permits, requiring them to limit the amount of harmful byproducts from animal manure that could flow into nearby waters.

The manure is a major source of nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients that can damage the delicate balance of rivers and streams. Nationwide, the EPA estimates, animal waste contributes to the degradation of one in 10 American rivers.

In Maryland, nutrient-laden runoff from the Delmarva Peninsula's 6,083 chicken houses has been linked to outbreaks of Pfiesteria and other toxic microorganisms. In North Carolina and some Midwestern states, manure spills were linked to fish kills and contaminated drinking water.

Congress gave the EPA the power to regulate the nation's biggest livestock operations more than 20 years ago under the Clean Water Act. But it has been a low priority. There are about 450,000 feedlots for beef, pigs and poultry in the United States, but only 1,600 of the very biggest have EPA permits.

"Things like Pfiesteria were a part of the wake-up call," said EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening said the EPA proposal, combined with his administration's plans to make farmers control nutrient-laden runoff, would give the state new tools to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, which suffers from an overload of nutrients.

"It is absolutely necessary that we have the state program as well," Glendening said. "We have a number of provisions in our plan that are much broader than just the poultry industry."

The Maryland Senate and House yesterday approved rival versions of a plan to control farm runoff, throwing the final decision to a conference panel made up of members of both legislative bodies. The Senate's version is similar to Glendening's proposal, with stiffer deadlines and fines, while the House version gives farmers more flexibility and time.

A national standard for runoff from animal feedlots would take some of the economic pressure off Maryland agriculture, by assuring that everyone has to bear roughly similar costs for reducing polluted runoff, the governor said.

"What we need is a level playing field," Glendening said, "not to put either our crop farmers or our poultry producers at a disadvantage. It makes more sense if we have minimum water quality guaranteed with regard to animal wastes nationwide, and then let states build on that."

Maryland Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes said, "If it has to be done everywhere, then the cost of doing it will not be putting Maryland at a competitive disadvantage."

Poultry growers said the EPA proposal is premature.

"First, somebody's got to show us that there is significant runoff from the [chicken] houses," said Gerald Evans, a lobbyist for the Delmarva Poultry Industry. "Farmers want to do the right thing. If there's runoff, they'll address it. If the science doesn't show that there is runoff, they don't want to be blamed for it any more."

Maryland Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican, said the EPA's proposal "is a giant step forward, not only in sustaining agriculture, but improving agriculture and helping to hold onto the family farm."

These days, only a few family farmers can compete in a changing livestock industry. Environmental regulators said they have failed to stay on top of trends that have concentrated more animals on less land, increasing the risk of damage to the environment and public health.

The agency "recognizes that its existing regulatory programs related to animal waste management are not being implemented consistently and have not kept pace with evolving technologies or industry practices," according to the EPA draft proposal.

"The industry has changed over the last 20 years," said Robert Perciasepe, EPA assistant administrator for water. "It's become more concentrated. It's a bigger problem than it was 20 years ago."

In Maryland, fewer than a half-dozen of the state's feedlots have pollution control permits, and officials aren't even sure how many large feedlots are in the state, said Jeffrey Rein of the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Although poultry growers dominate Maryland's livestock industry, they have been exempted from the state's permit program. Growers get some federal money for voluntary efforts to limit the runoff from stockpiles of manure, but they have never been required to control the runoff.

Rein said that's because the EPA and the state have been relying on the obsolete assumption that most chickens are raised in backyard hen houses, not today's "industrial operations."

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