Environmentalists unhappy with new runoff rules

Restrictions on farms denounced as too lax

May 28, 2000|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The government's new policy to shield American waterways from pollutants generated by livestock farms is drawing scorn from environmental groups - even before it has been announced.

The criticism stems from the latest drafts of the Environmental Protection Agency's recommendations for how states should apply the Clean Water Act to large livestock farms - those with more than 750 dairy cows, 1,000 beef cattle, 2,500 hogs, 30,000 egg-laying hens or 100,000 broiling chickens.

For the first time, the EPA will call for all such farms to seek a permit from their states and to develop plans to handle excess runoff from animal waste. And it will hold animal processors responsible for the pollution from farms where livestock is being raised for them.

Environmentalists argue that the EPA policy would be too weak, providing little direct oversight and failing to regulate all the big farms that threaten water quality. The EPA is expected to complete the new guidelines within two weeks.

Maryland has adopted requirements for farmers that state officials consider more strenuous than those being drafted by federal officials. Those state policies would not be affected by the new U.S. guidelines.

Federal officials hail the imminent policy as an important step nationally that would lead to reductions in water pollution from agricultural sources.

"Once you have a permit, that is a contract," said Charles Fox, assistant administrator of the EPA. "You can't have any pollutants running off your property and damaging the environment."

Scientists agree that high concentrations of the phosphorus and nitrogen contained in animal waste can seriously imperil water quality.

Fox said the new EPA guidelines would promote greater environmental protection throughout the country. But many of the environmental groups consulted by the EPA are crying foul.

"These are not farms; they're industrial operations," said Ken Midkiff, coordinator of the Sierra Club's clean water campaign. Even under the new policy, Midkiff said, if farmers allow excess pollutants to flow into nearby water, "it's highly unlikely that anyone will catch them, because EPA and the state agencies aren't patrolling the streams."

In a recent letter to Fox and his boss, EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner, representatives of eight national and regional environmental groups criticized the policy.

Another skeptic, Michael Hirshfield, vice president for resource protection at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, also said the federal regulations are not rigorous enough.

Animal processors and farmers in Maryland, he said, will probably lobby state officials for easing of standards, arguing that they are being held to a higher standard than their counterparts in the rest of the country.

"Unfortunately, you get a phenomenon known as pollution shopping," Hirshfield said, suggesting that those affected might move out of Maryland.

Fox and another federal official involved with crafting the new policy said the objections were ill-founded.

For example, Fox said, contrary to critics' claims that the policy would not apply broadly enough, most livestock farms would be required to get permits.

"A lot of the environmental groups don't want these large farms to exist," said a senior Agriculture Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Instead of going after the policy, they're trying to deny their ability to exist by saying there isn't adequate engineering capability to handle the waste."

Representatives of the farming and animal processing industries have also raised sharp objections, though for different reasons.

Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, which includes Perdue Farms Inc. of Salisbury, says the EPA is ignoring the nutrient containment plans voluntarily adopted by poultry processors.

In addition, he questioned whether the EPA could legally limit how much fertilizer farmers put on crops. "They don't have any legal authority to regulate what a farmer does on his fields," Lobb said.

Yet environmentalists contend that:Because of the way it gauges pollution levels, the policy would not take into account the high levels of animal waste used as fertilizer on some fields.The policy would do nothing to stop the use of so-called lagoons -huge pools of animal waste that allow nitrogen to evaporate into the air as ammonia and then pollute nearby water when it condenses.

During storms, heavy concentrations of waste from the lagoons are often flushed into nearby waterways.The policy would not require the regulation of pollution from farms that buy animal waste from other farms and use it as fertilizer on their fields.Enforcement would depend largely on the willingness of farmers to report their violations of pollution levels.

"These permits are virtually automatic and unreviewed" by government regulators, said Tim Searchinger, an attorney for Environmental Defense, an advocacy group.

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