(Posted by Scott Edwards.)
The old grey mare just ain’t what she used to be. And for that matter, neither are those chickens. Or the cows. And you just wouldn’t recognize the pigs. Even if you could see them. But you can’t. Because they spend their entire, short life in darkened, crowded, filthy sheds. Nope, farms just aren’t what they used to be. In fact, they aren’t really even farms anymore. They’re factories. Every bit as much a factory as a papermill. Or a chemical processing plant. Put away your pastoral picture book – there’s nothing quaint or country about them.
Today’s animal farms would make George Orwell cringe. They’re meat manufacturing plants, using genetic engineering, technology, drugs and chemicals to force animals to grow as quickly as possible. They leave behind a massive environmental footprint in our air and watersheds. Ammonia, arsenic, nitrogen, phosphorus, fecal coliform, various strains of fecal bacteria and residual antibiotics are just some of the harmful waste products of this intensive manufacturing process.
Yet where other industries have been forced to take responsibility for their damaging waste streams, agribusiness continues to get a free pass under the self-serving proclamation that “there are no better environmental stewards than the American farmer.” While that claim may have held some weight decades ago, nowadays environmentally sustainable farms are the rare exception. Today’s meat producers are cogs in an ever-spinning industrial wheel, put in unsustainable motion by the greed of the big factory farm integrators like Perdue, Smithfield, Tyson and Sanderson. And none of these industries wants to spend a dime of their enormous profits on responsible waste disposal.
Waterkeeper Alliance and our local Riverkeepers – in the Chesapeake and across the nation – have been challenging factory farms, also known as concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs), to lessen their environmental impact on our nation’s watersheds. The public trust doctrine, which decrees that all waterways in the country belong to the people, not governments or industrial polluters, provides the backbone of Waterkeeper’s advocacy approach. We believe that no one has the right to take our clean water rights away – not politicians, not chemical manufacturers, not sewage facilities and not industrial farms. Pollution of our shared waterways is every bit as much theft as someone walking onto your yard and stealing your property.
For many years now the factory farming industry has acted as if they own our waterways, including the Chesapeake Bay. They’ve been slowly stealing the Bay away from the boaters, crabbers, fishermen, recreational users of this great waterway. The big poultry integrators on the Eastern Shore have burdened their growers with unsustainable amounts of poultry waste, virtually ensuring that the Bay watershed will continue to serve as an open toilet for the many pollutants which flow freely from their facilities.
Despite the endless state and federal political rhetoric (surpassed only by taxpayer dollars) thrown at the Bay problem for the past twenty years, things are not getting better. And here’s just one example of why:
A couple of years ago Maryland said they were finally ready to take on factory farming by implementing a Clean Water Act permitting scheme that carefully controlled poultry waste. Putting aside the fact that the state originally wanted to hand out lax states permits that allowed for three solid months of open stockpiling for the huge majority of Eastern Shore CAFOs until it was forced to issue more protective 14 day stockpiling permits, the big problem with Maryland’s program is that it contains a waste management loophole big enough to drive a manure-laden truck through. Because although CAFOs can’t stockpile manure for more than 14 days, crop farms can.
Go down to the Eastern Shore during shed cleanout season and you’ll find trucks filled with poultry manure crisscrossing the roadways, carting the waste from regulated CAFOs to unregulated crop farms, where it can be stockpiled in rain swept open fields and runoff into ditches and out into the Bay. To add insult to Bay injury, this waste disposal avoidance scheme is facilitated by the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s manure transport program which uses taxpayer funds to move the waste from CAFO’s to crop farms.
We’ve all heard the ongoing claim that CAFOs need manure for their cover crops. So how do they make up for the poultry manure that they’re shipping off to their crop cousins? They’re bringing in hundreds of tons of sewage sludge from local wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs). Poultry waste on chicken farms is regulated; sewage sludge is not. So they’re trading regulated waste for unregulated waste, while their regulated waste becomes unregulated when it gets to the crop farms.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. As an extra-added incentive to agribusiness, EPA’s recent Chesapeake Bay TMDL (Total Daily Maximum Load) allows for the trading of pollutants, including nutrients, from nonpoint sources of pollution (like crop farms) to point sources (like WWTPs). So those very crop farmers who take poultry waste from CAFOs and stockpile it in open fields can now make unverified claims that they’ve actually reduced their pollutant loads to the Bay, generate nutrient pollution credits and peddle them to the wastewater treatment plants. The WWTPs can take those new pollution credits, bring in more waste and create more sewage sludge to send to CAFOs to dump on their lands so that they can ship more poultry waste to unregulated crop farms who can generate more unverified nutrient reduction credits to sell to the WWTPs to . . . well, you get the picture. It’s the old shell game with massive piles of waste.
The CAFO permit loophole, the manure transport system, sludge delivery and nutrient trading – all complex regulatory mechanisms being employed for one reason, and one reason only – to shift responsibility, evade control and keep waste moving around the Eastern Shore, with little record keeping and no accountability. There’s little wonder the Bay is such a mess – question is, who has the political courage to put an end to it all?