Where Does Manure in the Chesapeake Come From Anyway? EPA, It's Time to Find Out

by Shana Campbell Jones

Cattle, chickens, and hogs create more than 500 million tons of manure in the United States annually – three times more than the sanitary waste produced by people. Yet, in contrast to a concerted federal and state effort to fund and build sewage treatment plants since the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972, dealing with the water pollution problems caused by animal waste has been like wrestling a greased pig – a stinky, frustrating mess.

Regulating agricultural waste in the Chesapeake Bay watershed has been no less frustrating than in any other area of the country. And it’s no secret that nitrogen and phosphorous loadings from manure are killing the Bay. Recent developments in the Bay watershed, however, could signal a new direction on regulating Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs – factory farms) and the application of manure to cropland by farmers. An emerging coalition of 40 environmental groups – from the smallest Riverkeeper to the National Wildlife Federation – wrote a letter this week to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania (the primary states comprising the Chesapeake watershed) demanding comprehensive action on Bay pollution, including agricultural runoff (disclaimer: CPR advised the coalition on the letter). If EPA leads like it could, a cleaner Bay could move from dream to reality.

One of the recommendations made by the coalition is that EPA create an ongoing and independent accountability mechanism for the Chesapeake Bay Program, where an independent evaluator monitors and assesses federal and state progress toward achieving restoration goals. Such an accountability mechanism is desperately needed because crucial information about Bay polluters and control practices is opaque. For example – and this is truly mind-boggling – public EPA data on how many CAFOs operate and are permitted in the Bay watershed is nonexistent, even though EPA has had the authority to regulate CAFOs for more than thirty-seven years.

The problem is acute enough that the Government Accountability Office took EPA to task for sticking its head in the sand. A 2008 GAO report found that “no federal agency collects accurate and consistent data on the number, size, and location of CAFOs,” in spite of the fact that “large farms can produce more raw waste than the human population of a large city.”

Data on the numbers of CAFOs receiving permits – EPA’s charge, supposedly – is similarly missing. When we interviewed key Bay advocates and officials last fall, one government official estimated that approximately half of the CAFOs in the Bay were unpermitted – but it's impossible to know exactly without that data.

Some numbers are emerging, thanks to EPA’s problematic 2008 CAFO rule, of all things. After the Bush administration issued its midnight CAFO rule in late October, Manure Manager reported in April that the number of CAFOs in Maryland and Delaware is up dramatically – from 13 to 460 in Maryland, and from 17 to 345 in Delaware. EPA’s 2008 CAFO Rule has real problems, but it has served to illuminate what we’ve suspected all along: there’s a lot of nasty stuff out there. Even more than we thought, apparently.

Granted, CAFOs don’t cause all of the problems in the Bay – they’re not responsible, for example, if a farmer purchases CAFO manure and applies it incorrectly – but they obviously play an important role in generating it in the first place. Thanks to a Chesapeake Bay Foundation report, using EPA data, we also know the three areas where more than half of the manure nitrogen is generated in the watershed: Lancaster County, PA (the fifth highest-producing agricultural area in the country); the Delmarva Peninsula (one of the top chicken-producing regions nationwide); and Rockingham County, VA (the largest turkey producer in the nation). What we don’t know is if the CAFOs in these areas are permitted, inspected, and then penalized for violating the law.

This coming Tuesday, the Executive Council of the Chesapeake Bay Program – EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, the Mayor of the District of Columbia, and the Governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania – will meet in Mount Vernon, Virginia, to talk about cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. The Executive Council has met annually for years, typically posing for pictures and setting goals that aren't kept. This year could be different. At a forum hosted by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Norfolk on Wednesday, Governor Kaine strongly suggested some major changes will be announced at the meeting about the Bay Program.

Much should be done – and we look forward to decisive action from the governors and strong leadership from EPA. For starters, EPA and the states could commit to finding the answers to some simple questions: How many CAFOs are in the Bay watershed? Where are they located? Do they have permits? If you’re going to wrestle a pig, go for it. But finding the pig first would be a good place to start.

© 2016 The Center for Progressive Reform