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Maryland’s Phosphorus-Laden Farms: One More Reason for the EPA to Get Back to Work on a Comprehensive CAFO Rule

Under an Obama Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency will strictly monitor and regulate pollution from large industrial animal farms, with fines for those who violate tough air and water quality standards.

—Sen. Barack Obama, 2008

The animal farms to which then-candidate Obama was referring are known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), and they house tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of chickens per flock. The ballooning popularity of these factory farms—at least with industry—means they now raise more than 40 percent of U.S. livestock, and that number increases annually. Along the way, the farms generate approximately 500 million tons of manure each year—three times the amount of waste the human population of the U.S. produces. This waste contains excess nitrogen and phosphorus; pathogens, including bacteria and viruses; antibiotics; and heavy metals such as copper and arsenic. Unlike human waste, livestock waste is not treated. Rather, it is stored in piles, pits, and sheds and spread onto land. These pollutants pose a threat to human health and wildlife and put our nation’s waterways—including the Chesapeake Bay—at risk.

For the past two weeks, this space has focused on several key regulatory safeguards meant to ensure that the nation’s waterways are protected from damaging pollution—rules that are currently at some stage of development at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and are included in our recent Issue Alert, Barack Obama’s Path to Progress in 2015–16: Thirteen Essential Regulatory Actions. Today’s post will focus on the EPA’s CAFO rule, which, despite the President’s campaign promises, the agency all but abandoned in 2013.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed is home to an ever-expanding number of gigantic chicken farms, so it serves as a perfect example of why an updated rule is needed. The manure produced at these farms is chock-full of phosphorus, an essential nutrient for all living organisms in the Chesapeake Bay, provided it is in the right quantity. Too much phosphorus, however, and algae growth explodes, using up all the oxygen in the Bay and leading to “dead zones” that cannot support aquatic life.

CAFOs in the Chesapeake Bay watershed generate so much manure that farmers don’t know what to do with it all, and they end up spreading way too much of it on their fields. Again, some manure is useful as fertilizer. But when there’s too much of it, as in Maryland’s chicken farms, the fields become little more than sluice gates to the Chesapeake. Indeed, an interactive map we released earlier this week, along with the Chesapeake Commons, shows that all but one of 60 CAFOs on Maryland’s Eastern Shore reported having at least one field saturated with “excessive” soil phosphorus from the spreading of manure. Excessive values tell farmers they should not apply additional phosphorus since crops are not able to absorb it, and it ends up running off of fields, into streams, and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay. Yet, as an Environmental Integrity Report found, farmers reported applying three times more phosphorus in chicken manure on their fields in 2012 than their crops needed.

Current EPA regulations require CAFOs to adhere to nutrient management plans that govern the application, handling, and disposal of manure. Yet, even though all the farms we examined were operating under a nutrient management plan, farmers were still able to apply excessive amounts of phosphorus-laden manure to their fields. A new rule is necessary to address a number of holes in the existing regulations. One gaping hole, as our map shows, is the need to strengthen the requirements for nutrient management plans so that farmers do not over-apply manure.

The EPA’s recent CAFO rulemakings have not gone smoothly. In the early 2000s, the agency took another look at its CAFO regulations, which had not been updated since the 1970s. The 2003 rule was challenged in court and weakened by industry groups, triggering a new rule in 2008 that was also challenged and weakened. The result of these court decisions is that fewer than 43 percent of CAFOs nationwide operate under federal oversight. Fearful that any new rule would be challenged, the Obama Administration’s EPA abandoned a subsequent rulemaking attempt in 2013.

To protect our nation’s waterways, a comprehensive rule is needed to regulate the pollution that washes from these giant farms. The Administration should work quickly and direct the EPA to get back to work on its CAFO rule. To ensure that the rulemaking is completed before the end of the Obama Administration, the EPA should commit to issuing a proposed CAFO rule by no later than April 2015 and a final rule by no later than June 2016.

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