Farmers, officials struggle with new farming permit process

Demand for help on waste management plans overwhelms government

August 15, 2010|By Kate Yanchulis, Special to The Baltimore Sun

SALISBURY — — Bobby Graves had misgivings about a pollution-control permit newly required for many farms in the state. But he applied, ready to detail how he's storing and disposing of the manure from his 110,000 chickens.

Now, more than three months after seeking help from the Maryland Department of Agriculture in crafting a plan for reducing his farm's wastewater runoff — the final step needed for the permit — he's still waiting. And growing more frustrated with each passing day.

"When I went in for my meeting with [a field service center] about three months ago, they told me it would be about three to four months before they even had an opportunity to work on my plan," the Eastern Shore chicken farmer said.

Graves is one of the hundreds of Maryland farmers who have become entangled in a new permit process that is pivotal to the state's plan to reduce one of the leading sources of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay — livestock manure that seeps into local waterways.

The permit requirement, enacted by the state in December to comply with updated regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency, is meant to tighten controls over pollution generated by the poultry industry. But the program has struggled to take off.

Almost no farmers have the training necessary to write the nutrient-management plans required under the program, and the government is struggling to meet the growing need for help. Farmers who do secure their nutrient plans find that there's often little follow-up from the government to see whether their farms are complying with the plans they've laid out.

The Maryland Department of the Environment has just two inspectors to follow up with the more than 500 farmers who applied for permits, said spokeswoman Dawn Stoltzfus. The department can mete out penalties of up to $5,000 a day for each violation in a permit plan, or more if it takes legal action.

The EPA has made it clear that if the states do not enforce its regulations, the federal government can take back control of the process.

In Wicomico County, just nine of the 107 farms that had applied for pollution-reducing permits as of Aug. 1 had comprehensive nutrient-management plans in place, according to an MDE online database.

Of the 16 farms that sought permits in Salisbury as of June, 14 remain on the waiting list for help developing their nutrient plans with a U.S. Department of Agriculture field service center, according to documents submitted to the Maryland Department of the Environment. Only one had been inspected as of July 14.

"We do have staff available in each office to develop [nutrient-management plans], but without a doubt, it is a workload issue for our offices," said Tim Pilkowski, Maryland conservation agronomist for the USDA's National Resource Conservation Service, which helps run the service centers.

The USDA is part of a web of federal and state agencies involved in the permit process. The USDA and the Maryland Department of Agriculture help develop the nutrient plans for farmers; the EPA wrote the regulations and oversees the program; and the Maryland Department of the Environment issues and enforces the pollution-control permits in the state.

The precarious state of the bay's health helped prompt the EPA to set stricter permit regulations for livestock farms under the Clean Water Act in 2008.

The MDE had been running the permit program on a smaller scale since 1990. But until the 2008 update, chicken farms did not fall under the requirements.

Now, 529 farming facilities have applied for the new permits, and chicken farms account for all but 17, according to the Department of the Environment's online database.

In Wicomico County, 102 farm owners have been to the soil conservation office to request help on plans, according to Mike Sigrist, the Wicomico County district conservationist for the USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service.

And farmers looking to avoid the congestion cannot do it themselves. To write the plans, they must have two levels of certification, from the state and federal agriculture departments, Pilkowski said.

"Basically, with what I'm looking at in Wicomico County, within two years we could be done," Sigrist said.

The MDE has created a compliance schedule to cope with the delays.

Farmers must request nutrient-management plans by early January, but they can remain on waiting lists indefinitely, as long as they check in with status forms every six months.

This article was produced by the News21 team at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, in partnership with The Baltimore Sun. For more information about the News21 Chesapeake Bay project, visit Chesapeake.news21.com

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