Hog farms' waste poses a threat Pollution: Pennsylvania, which has failed to enforce laws to protect the Chesapeake, wants more huge pig farms even though the manure could foul the bay.

On The Bay

January 01, 1999|By Tom Horton and SUN STAFF

EVEN AS MARYLAND makes long-overdue headway reducing Chesapeake Bay pollution from poultry manure, its upstream neighbor, Pennsylvania, threatens to offset it by inviting a huge buildup of factory hog farms.

Pennsylvania's governor, Tom Ridge, has traveled as far as Asia to solicit investment in large, and largely unregulated, corporate pig factories.

This at a time when his state is failing to meet goals for reducing bay pollution from existing agricultural operations.

To meet goals of reducing by 40 percent the polluting nitrogen flowing to the bay from its Susquehanna and Potomac River drainages, Pennsylvania banked on a 1993 law. That law required that 4,178 farms have pollution-reduction plans by 1998.

This would cut by nearly 8 million pounds the flow of nitrogen to the Chesapeake, where it is the prime cause of low oxygen and the loss of vital sea grass habitat.

As of a few months ago, 170 farms of more than 4,000 targeted had submitted pollution- reduction strategies.

Here come the hogs, and nothing like any hog farm most readers have seen. These huge farms are called concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, by federal and state regulators struggling to get a handle on them.

CAFOs feature thousands of swine, confined cheek by jowl, in long, metal buildings -- as removed from the traditional small hog farm as today's poultry raising is from hens scratching in the barnyard.

It is a reflection of the hugely cheap and abundant food system our society has created while paying little attention to the ramifications for the environment or the family farm.

Livestock and poultry produce an estimated 5 tons of manure annually for every U.S. resident. The concentration of that manure is the biggest problem.

The United States produced as many hogs 15 years ago -- but on 600,000 farms, compared with 157,000 now.

That concentration creates problems: odors and air pollution that harm human health and devalue neighborhoods; contamination of waterways and wells; and ground water depletion that dries up wells and alters stream flows, harming aquatic life.

Pennsylvania shows how CAFOs target areas with cheap land and lax regulation -- often the very places one would most want to keep environmentally unspoiled.

People attending a Sierra Club meeting on reining in CAFOs last month at Frostburg State University included families from rural Bedford County, Pa., across the state line from Allegany County, Md.

One CAFO has been operating there for a few years, and a Taiwanese investor, Chiou Hog Farms LLC of Silver Spring, proposes three more in the same area.

(The Taiwanese know hog farming. An Associated Press article circulated at the Frostburg meeting detailed how Taiwan's second-largest city no longer uses its tap water because of pollution from industry and factory hog farms.)

The CAFO sites in Bedford County are in the headwaters of Sideling Hill Creek, one of the most ecologically valuable tributaries of the bay.

The Pennsylvania and Maryland portions are designated waters of exceptional value. They are home to many endangered species and have received major private and state protection.

"Pennsylvania has sold us down the river," said Seri Kern, one of the Bedford County residents. "They have told us we are going to have hog factories, like it or not."

She and her husband, Craig, showed photographs of hog wastes being spread in winter on frozen ground -- legal, but against principles of good farm waste management, which dictate spreading when sprouting crops can incorporate the nitrogen.

The Kerns and others detailed how Pennsylvania laws are grievously lax regarding CAFOs.

Waste hauled off-site is not the responsibility of the hog farm. Planting of winter "cover crops," another excellent way to reduce pollution in farm runoff, is not required. Phosphorus, another major Chesapeake pollutant in farm runoff, is not addressed.

CAFOs may have huge numbers of hogs -- perhaps as many as 6,900 -- and be considered small enough to slip through the relatively stringent regulatory framework for large-scale animal operations.

Officially, the premise is that CAFOs will be brought under control. Pennsylvania and the federal Environmental Protection Agency are writing regulations and guidelines in the wake of disastrous pollution problems from big hog farms in North Carolina and other states.

Little doubt exists that these efforts will yield improvement. But don't think they will come close to remedying the situation.

To see why not, check the findings of a recent report financed by the Abell Foundation in Baltimore and prepared by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation: "Massive Hog Production Facilities: A New and Growing Threat to the Mid-Atlantic Environment."

The report makes evident that Pennsylvania and the EPA have considerable power to regulate CAFOs, if they want to.

Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection does not know how many CAFOs are in the state (estimates are 2,500 -- including poultry and cattle -- and growing fast).

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