Pollution lawsuits threatened

Group targets 5 Pa. farms it says lack proper permits, endanger the bay

January 09, 2007|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- A Pennsylvania environmental group says it plans to sue five big Lancaster County hog and chicken farms as part of a sweeping campaign to keep manure pollution out of the Chesapeake Bay.

PennFuture, a nonprofit advocacy group, says the five "factory farms" are among up to 250 livestock operations in this state that have failed to get water pollution control permits required by federal and state laws.

"These farms have refused to comply with the laws protecting water from farm pollution, despite the fact that they have known of the laws' requirements for some time," said Kimberly L. Snell-Zarcone, staff attorney for the environmental group. It filed notice yesterday of its intention to sue within 60 days unless the farms comply.

The five businesses - which produce almost 8 million gallons of waste a year - have more than 10,000 pigs, 170,000 chickens and 330 cows, the group said. They were targeted in the first wave of legal notices because they are near the Susquehanna River, the largest source of fresh water to the Chesapeake Bay.

About 40 percent of the nitrogen pollution that causes low-oxygen "dead zones" in the bay comes from farm pollution, and about half of this is from animal manure, said Beth McGee, senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Lancaster County is one of the "hot spots" for manure runoff into waterways, she said.

"We are in favor of enforcing environmental regulations, and this is one more tool to help us manage pollution from these sources," McGee said.

One of the farmers who received a legal notice, Gary Lefever of Marietta, Pa., stood yesterday over the bodies of two dead sows sprawled in the doorway of a huge metal shed holding 900 pigs. Pungent fumes wafted from a scum-covered, 50-yard-long pond of hog excrement, which rippled near a second building housing about 600 pigs.

"It's definitely too much paperwork," said Lefever, 59, of the permitting requirements. He added that he has an appointment with state environmental officials today, and plans to comply with the regulations they ask him to follow.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection sent letters to all five farmers in November, warning that they might be out of compliance with water permitting requirements, said Lee Yohn, a compliance specialist with the state agency.

Although the state is still investigating the cases, Lefever and a second farmer face possible fines for operating for almost five years without required permits, Yohn said. The other three should probably have applied for water pollution permits under new federal standards that went into effect in April, he said.

The permits are designed to prevent rain from washing manure into waterways by requiring farmers to keep fertilizer away from streams, and by allowing state inspectors to examine waste lagoons to make sure they won't leak, said Jim Spontak, manager of watershed management programs for the state agency's Lancaster region.

Both the state agency and the environmental group agree that some large animal-feeding operations lack permits, but they differ on the scope of the problem. PennFuture said it gave the agency a list of 500 farms of questionable compliance in June, about 250 of which probably lack water pollution control permits required by law.

In October, November and December, the state sent out letters to about 30 or 40 animal feeding operations in the Lancaster area that it thought lacked required permits.

Manure that is not properly controlled seeps into the underground water supply, leading to nutrient pollution in Lancaster County's drinking water, Snell-Zarcone said. If these five businesses apply for permits with the state within 60 days, the environmental group will drop its threat to file lawsuits in state or federal court, she said.

Then the organization will move down its list of 250 possible violators of the permitting process, making sure they all apply for and receive the required government scrutiny, she said.

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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