Suit threat frustrates hog farmers

Environmental groups targeting bay pollution

January 22, 2007|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN REPORTER

PEACH BOTTOM, Pa. -- Every spring, Scott Brinton pumps about a million gallons of hog manure onto farm fields overlooking the Susquehanna River - the largest source of water for the Chesapeake Bay.

Brinton feeds 3,000 pigs in a metal building a few miles north of the Maryland line, and their waste fertilizes his 375 acres of corn and soybeans. He is frustrated that two Pennsylvania environmental groups sent him a letter threatening to sue if he didn't apply for a permit that would require him do more to prevent runoff into the river.

"I think they are being a little overly forceful," said Brinton, 42, a third-generation farmer. "They are doing some strong arm-twisting ... really putting you under the gun."

The decision to use litigation to attack what many regard as the bay's No. 1 problem - agricultural pollution, much of it from Pennsylvania - is being criticized by some farmers, who say they're overburdened with expensive and ever-changing fertilizer control requirements.

The aggressive approach is also drawing notice among environmentalists, who are more accustomed to suing power company executives than family farmers like Brinton.

PennFuture, an environmental group based in Harrisburg, has compiled a list of about 250 livestock operations in Pennsylvania that it believes are breaking federal and state water pollution laws. Working with another group, called the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, the advocates began going down their list this month, sending out notices of intent to sue the five farms closest to the Susquehanna.

Howard Ernst, a political science professor at the Naval Academy, says PennFuture and the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper are filling a vacuum by using lawsuits to fight water pollution - an important step that he said the region's biggest environmental group, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, refuses to take.

Instead of suing farmers, the foundation has launched a "Save the Farm, Save the Bay" campaign to lobby the state and federal governments for millions of dollars to pay farmers to install fences, buffer strips and other runoff controls.

"The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has chosen to use carrots - government funding - while these other groups have chosen to use sticks - lawsuits," said Ernst, who studies bay restoration. "At the end of the day, it will probably take both to address the sizable pollution coming out of Pennsylvania."

He says the problem with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's approach is "the taxpayers are left to pay the bill." The advantage of lawsuits, he says, is that they "require polluters to pay for their own waste."

Will Baker, the foundation's president, says his group has sued developers, factories, coal-fired power plants, the federal government and others to help clean up the bay. But the group doesn't sue farmers because it believes that it's more effective to work cooperatively with them to help them reduce runoff.

"We are trying to encourage farmers to stay in agriculture because when they go out of business, they are replaced by hard, developed land uses such as shopping centers, highways and commercial facilities," Baker said. "And then the total impact on the environment is greater."

Meanwhile, a debate is simmering nationally over whether livestock businesses should be required to apply for the water pollution permits.

Under current federal regulations, confined animal feeding operations of a certain size - for example, 750 pigs averaging 55 pounds or more - must apply for permits designed to prevent manure from being washed by rain into streams.

These permits, issued by state governments, require the farmers to allow inspectors onto their property once a year to inspect waste lagoons to make sure they aren't leaking, said Jim Spontak, regional manager of watershed management for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Among other steps, the permits restrict farmers from spreading manure on fields closer than 100 feet from waterways or require a 35-foot filter strip of trees and bushes between the fields and the water. The permits cost $500 in Pennsylvania, plus sometimes thousands of dollars in fees to consultants who plan runoff-control systems.

The Bush administration has proposed revising those regulations so that livestock operations would no longer have a duty to apply for permits unless there's proof they are discharging pollution, said William J. Gerlach, an attorney for the Waterkeeper Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit that coordinates the efforts of local "riverkeeper" organizations.

The problem with requiring proof is that, while almost all farms leak manure, the pollution is hard to document because there are no pipes to monitor, Gerlach said. Rain slowly and invisibly flushes fertilizer through the soil and into streams and drinking water supplies, he said.

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