If You Care about the Climate Crisis, Here's What You Need to Know about Maryland's Clean Water Act Permit for Agricultural Pollution

by David Flores
Kathy Phillips

November 19, 2019

Last month, former CPR policy analyst Evan Isaacson wrote in this space about Maryland's proposal to revise and reissue its Clean Water Act pollution permit for concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). He made a convincing case that those who love the Bay need to advocate for effective and enforceable CAFO regulations.

Traditionally, air pollution permits have been and will continue to be a critical component of climate policy in the United States, controlling emissions of greenhouse gas pollutants. But strong water pollution standards, including permits, are also a vital tool in addressing climate change because they are so important to state efforts to adapt.

Maryland's CAFO permit is what's described as a "general permit" because it's a single permit that will cover many hundreds of individual pollution sources – in this case, CAFOs. And because this one will be issued in 2020, and because it's a five-year permit, this is the permit that will address CAFO emissions until 2025, by which time the state is required to meet the pollution-reduction requirements of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, the last, best hope for cleaning up the Bay. If the CAFO permit fails to achieve the pollution reductions it needs to, the problem won't get fixed in time to make a difference on the TMDL front.

As it happens, it's not until late 2021 that the state is required to develop a plan to address the impact of additional pollution loads attributable to the climate crisis. And those loads are significant. Last year, Bay scientists estimated that Maryland will need to address a substantial increase in such pollution because of climate change, including pollution related to more frequent and more intense rainfall, along with increases resulting from warmer air and water temperatures. Bay Program modelers project that Maryland will need to deal with an additional 2.2 million pounds of nitrogen per year by 2025 and another 100,000 pounds of phosphorus.

Clearly then, Maryland's new CAFO permit should account for the impacts of climate change. CAFOs are particularly vulnerable to flooding, one of the chief impacts of climate change, particularly on Maryland's Eastern Shore, the heart of the state's CAFO industry. Stronger hurricanes are more frequently following a path into the mid-Atlantic, bringing storm surge to the CAFOs' doorstep. River flooding, sunny-day flooding, and storm surge all have the potential to flood extensive portions of Maryland's industrial agricultural sector.

a phenomenon observed recently during Hurricane Florence at a number of chicken CAFOs in North Carolina. In addition, floodwaters will likely carry a potent cocktail of pollution from farm fields – pesticides, fertilizers (much of it animal waste from CAFOs), and more – straight into the Chesapeake.

A straightforward way that state regulators could factor climate change into their CAFO planning would be to reject permit applications for new CAFO facilities located in areas that are likely to flood from present-day risks of flooding, such as storm surge or 100-year flood zones. Those areas are going to be increasingly likely to flood, as the impacts of climate change unfold over the next several years. Similarly, ...

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