This week, CPR President Rena Steinzor and I joined with the Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition to submit comments to the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) urging the state to strengthen the permit that regulates Maryland’s nearly 600 industrial animal farms. MDE is in the process of renewing the General Discharge Permit, a one-size-fits-all permit that covers Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and Maryland Animal Feeding Operations (MAFOs) within the state (collectively known as Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs)). These farms raise hundreds of millions of animals each year and produce vast quantities of waste, playing a significant role in the ongoing degradation of the Chesapeake Bay and waterways throughout the state.
The comments focus on three main goals, urging MDE to:
Immediately begin assessing fees to process CAFOs’ permits. In the past, MDE has waived such fees, despite a legal requirement to the contrary. The fees would enable the agency to better monitor the polluting facilities. The current program is understaffed: It generally takes MDE more than year to process a CAFO’s permit application. While a permit is under review, a facility can operate without necessary pollution-prevention measures. The coalition’s comments emphasize the absurdity of leaving money—$400,000 per year—on the table when it’s needed to help police critical pollution problems harming the Chesapeake.
A failure to collect fees means that funding for the AFO program must come out of MDE’s general budget, which is appropriated by the General Assembly from tax revenue. Assessing fees ensures that a facility that pollutes the Bay shoulders the cost of regulating its operations—including permit-processing and inspecting it for compliance with the law—rather than foisting the cost of regulating its pollution onto the taxpaying public. With nearly 500 CAFOs in the state, the fees can make a significant difference to the understaffed and underfunded AFO program.
Clarify and strengthen the annual reporting requirements. The annual report submitted by each AFO is among the most important compliance assurance and enforcement tools available to MDE, and by extension, the communities affected by AFO operations. The Proposed Permit arbitrarily removes substantial reporting requirements from the reporting form now in use and impermissibly omits the reporting of specific information required under federal law. The coalition’s comments urge MDE to develop a standardized reporting form that contains all federally required fields.
Failing to establish clear reporting requirements in the permit and a standardized form detailing the same required information invites noncompliance, which is already a significant problem within Maryland’s AFO community. For example, data obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) request showed that, of the 111 AFOs in Caroline County listed on MDE’s website, 31 facilities—or 28 percent—failed to submit an annual report in 2012 (assuming that all submitted reports in Caroline County were provided in response to the MPIA request). Clearly, the solution to flawed annual reporting and widespread noncompliance is not to restrict reporting requirements and collect less information. MDE should instead pursue reporting violations and encourage complete and accurate reporting by creating, and requiring the use of, a clear and complete annual reporting form.
Allow permittees to submit annual reports electronically. With dwindling resources, MDE must be more strategic than ever about how it uses resources. Annual reports submitted by AFOs provide MDE with critical compliance information but also generate mountains of paperwork. The reports arrive by mail and MDE staff must enter all the information into a database, an error-prone process that can take the agency up to three years to complete. The comments urge MDE to develop a platform to allow AFO operators to submit reports electronically. Electronic reporting would give MDE a more complete and accurate set of performance data, enabling it to do a better job making sure Maryland’s waterways are clean. By posting these reports online, MDE could significantly enhance transparency and accountability by providing the public with timely information on potential sources of water pollution. What’s more, electronic reporting would also save regulators and the regulated community money, cutting down on postage, data-entry resources, and time.
The agricultural sector is, by far, Maryland’s most significant contributor of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay. While MDE lacks authority to regulate many sources of agricultural pollution, it has clear authority to regulate the AFOs that produce millions of pounds of nutrient pollution in Maryland each year. The coalition’s comments urge the state to ensure that the Proposed Permit sufficiently reduces contamination of Maryland’s waters while also increasing public access to vital information on an operation’s performance.