RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia has adopted its first environmental regulations of the state's wealthiest agribusiness, poultry farming, and the more than 1 billion pounds of manure that chickens and turkeys leave behind each year.
Under rules approved unanimously this week by the State Water Control Board, each of Virginia's 1,309 poultry farmers must obtain a state permit next year, complete a pollution-management plan and track where their birds' manure is sold or applied as fertilizer.
The big poultry processors, such as Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms, must help find alternative uses for these wastes, which might include fertilizer pellets, animal feed or power-plant fuel, officials said.
But the companies will not be liable for environmental damage that might result from wastes washing off farms during rains and polluting state waters with excessive ammonia, nitrogen or phosphorus. The farmers will bear that responsibility.
The Clinton administration has described farm runoff, especially from livestock operations, as the biggest threat to American waterways. States from North Carolina to Delaware have acted in recent years to reform how they control farm pollution, which scientists have linked to algae blooms, fish kills and, perhaps, the emergence of the toxic microbe known as pfiesteria.
Dennis Treacy, director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, described the new rules as "fair and reasonable" for the state's $700 million-a-year poultry industry, while "at the same time protective of the environment."
Environmentalists and farm representatives alike portrayed the regulations as a compromise, noting that the issue became surprisingly emotional and contentious. It took more than a year to draft the rules, which stem from legislation passed by the General Assembly in 1999.
This summer, a preliminary proposal generated nearly 2,000 public comments urging the state to get tougher.
State regulators added a requirement that new poultry houses or manure sheds cannot be built in 100-year flood plains. The impetus was North Carolina's horrendous experience with Hurricane Floyd last year, when livestock farms in flood plains were devastated by heavy rains and leaked pollutants into rivers and estuaries.
In addition, the state will require farmers to keep records for three years of how they dispose of more than 10 tons of manure. Merchants who buy the wastes and sell them as fertilizer also must keep track of their commerce and report their activities to the state.
The state will inspect poultry farms once a year for compliance. The Department of Environmental Quality is hiring 11 staff members for the job, Treacy said. The regulatory program is expected to cost about $1.5 million a year.
Doug Baxter, an environmental manager for Tyson Foods, said he has sent letters to the hundreds of company growers in the Shenandoah Valley and central Virginia and on the Eastern Shore, telling them they need to start their nutrient-management plans.
The plans, devised in conjunction with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, are designed to let farmers know how much nitrogen and phosphorus their lands can take in fertilizers and how best to control runoff.
Environmental groups are wary of one section in the regulations that allows a 14-day grace period for handling poultry wastes. During that time, farmers are not required to store or cover their wastes, a fact that worries groups such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.