(Posted by Scott Edwards.)
As of 2008, despite the trumpeting of significant progress made in agricultural discharges of nutrients into the Bay, the industry was still pumping 100 million pounds of nitrogen and over 8 million pounds of phosphorus per year into the Chesapeake Bay watershed. With industry executives and their lobbyists and state Department of Agriculture officials claiming that the vast majority of ag has implemented Best Management Practices (BMPs) and are faithfully adhering to Nutrient Management Plans (NMPs), and ag still remaining the largest contributor of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution to the Bay, there’s only one possible conclusion: the ag industry in the Chesapeake is simply unsustainable. And no where is that unsustainablity more evident than in the CAFO (concentrated animal feed operations) sector of big agribusiness.
EPA recently attributed 25 percent of Bay pollution to animal waste from the region’s CAFOs. Big poultry has shoehorned 568 million birds, producing over 1.1 billion pounds of manure per year, into the 5,450 square mile Delmarva Peninsula. That’s over 104,000 birds per square mile. Over 1 billion pounds of waste dumped on a small body of land jutting out into the middle of a fragile aquatic ecosystem – anyone who still wonders why the Bay is dying is simply choosing to hide their head in the manure pile.
This isn’t going to change until the sustainability issue is resolved and the big poultry companies are force to take responsibility for their own mess. Here are just some of the things that need to happen:
Integrator Liability: Let’s stop pretending that manure is a valuable commodity that’s left behind by the integrators as a favor to the contract poultry farmers. It’s a waste product, a heavy burden that local farmers just can’t handle. Nor should they have too. It’s integrators like Perdue, which enjoyed $4.6 million dollars in sales in 2009, that have the financial means to properly dispose of the waste produced by their own chickens. Put the integrator’s names on Clean Water Act permits, make them liable for the waste flowing from farms and fine them when you find pollution just like other industrial polluters get fined when they get caught degrading our waterways.
Zero Day Stockpiling: You can pay for all the studies you want about 14 days of stockpiling verses 90 days, or sculpting piles of manure into the Eastern Shore’s version of the Great Pyramids to reduce runoff – it’s a silly and senseless debate. Federal and state taxpayers dollars have gone to build hundreds of manure storage sheds on the Eastern Shore, yet drive down this spring and you will find shed after shed filled with farm equipment while manure sits outside in massive piles. Manure left open to the weather will pollute, it’s that simple. Put an end to open stockpiling of any manure, for any amount of time. Manure should go from chicken houses, to storage sheds to field application in agronomic amounts – no exceptions.
Mandatory Excess Waste Removal: Once you make the integrators responsible for their waste and you implement zero day stockpiling measures, make the integrators remove any excess manure from the CAFOs and take the waste out of the already-saturated Delmarva Peninsula. NMPs are supposed to be carefully calculated to allow land application of manure only in amounts that the plants and soil can absorb. If Perdue is producing 300 tons of chicken manure a year on one of its contract grower farms, and the surrounding land application area can only absorb 100 tons, then Perdue must come and pick up its excess 200 tons of manure and remove it from the Peninsula. The big poultry integrators benefit greatly from the concentration of growing operations in an absurdly small geographic area – they should also have to deal with the consequences of that business decision.
Close the Loophole: Regulatory control of waste is useless when there are convenient outs for industry. That’s the problem with Maryland’s CAFO permit. When other industries ship their waste offsite for disposal, there are careful manifesting requirements and ongoing assurances that the waste is disposed of properly by another party. Under the state’s CAFO regime, none of those safeguards exists; the controls on waste storage that attach to CAFOs disappear when that waste is shipped to crop farms. That leads to bad results. Anyone who accepts poultry waste should be made to comply with the same waste storage and disposal requirements that fall on the waste generator.
Stop Looking to the Market: Recently proposed federal legislation and EPA’s TMDL look to nutrient (and sediment) trading as a panacea for the farm pollution problem, but there is no support for this approach. There are no examples of a nutrient trading program successfully cleaning up a waterway in the U.S. Buying and selling the right to pollute simply introduces a whole new element to the mix – a market driven enticement to claim reductions where there are none and a potential overall increase in pollutants into the Bay. As one ag industry source recently said, nutrient trading is a way to “help farmers earn money while providing polluters with the opportunity to increase their pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.”
Support Sustainable Farming: When Waterkeeper filed its Clean Water Act case against Perdue last year for discharges of pollutants from a contract farm, Jim Perdue responded that we were the biggest threat to family farming in 50 years. Curious response, since Perdue and other big CAFO integrators in the country have singlehandedly destroyed family farming in modern day America. And it’s the destruction of the sustainable family farm in exchange for mega-agribusiness operations that has gotten the Bay to where it is today. The situation is being repeated across the country where these industries try to centralize their production as a cost-cutting method. Instead of propping up this highly polluting industry, our tax resources should be going into supporting real sustainable farming operations that grow quality food without harming the environment.
I don’t have much hope that any of these measures will be adopted. To date, all the failed plans to clean up the Bay have suffered from the same fatal defect – they relied on voluntary measures and state political will. Unfortunately, Bay state politicians have proven time and again that they simply aren’t willing to take on this industry in the way that would result in a clean Bay. That’s why Chesapeake 2000 failed and that’s why the new EPA TMDL, with mostly voluntary programs and no clear mandate to attain water quality standards, will also likely fail. For the states, these cleanup plans are all about funding opportunities, ways to make empty promises in exchange for continuing federal dollars.
I’m often asked, “If you clean up farming, would you have a clean Chesapeake Bay?” I don’t pretend to know the answer to that because I recognize that ag is only a part of the problem. But it’s a major part. What I can say with a good degree of certainty is that if you don’t clean up ag, you’ll never have a healthy Bay. Now we just need some state politicians with the courage to do so.
(Read Part One of this series: Chesapeake Bay: An Open Toilet.)