Sunday, January 16, 2000

The war on manure

EPA pushing for better control over farm waste

The Associated Press

        HIGHLAND, Ohio — On his hog farm in rural southwest Ohio, Marvin Harrick has more to worry about than low pork prices. He fears the government will impose unnecessarily costly rules on manure and waste-water runoff.

        “I don't want to pollute. I don't feel like I am, either,” Mr. Harrick said. “I drink water out of this well out here.”

        Mr. Harrick has been working the 800-acre family farm, decorated with signs promoting pork, for 20 years. He hopes to raise about 1,000 pigs this year.

        The Ohio Farm Bureau, which lobbies lawmakers on behalf of small-scale livestock producers like Mr. Harrick, says they are alarmed by the direction the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is taking.

        “My opinion is the U.S. EPA is out of control,” said John Fisher, president of the bureau. “It's my prediction that we will take our initiatives to the court system.”

        In February 1998, the Clinton administration released a Clean Water Action Plan designed to reduce the runoff of pollutants from farms. Last August, the EPA proposed guidelines to states that would require more feedlots to get EPA permits and encourage the rest to come up with voluntary anti-pollution plans.

        Regulators say runoff from farms can kill fish and contaminate drinking-water supplies.

        “This is a very significant national problem,” said Chuck Fox, assistant administrator for the EPA's office of water.

        Mr. Fox said that states have been interpreting existing pollution regulations differently and that the EPA guidelines are an attempt to make sure the rules are applied uniformly.

        There are 450,000 animal-feeding operations in the United States. Of those, about 20,000 are “concentrated” operations required to obtain permits under the Clean Water Act. However, Mr. Fox said, only 3,000 to 4,000 of those operations have such permits.

        Concentrated operations are generally defined numerically — they have more than 1,000 beef cows or relatively larger numbers of smaller animals.

        However, under the guidelines, the EPA can also define concentrated operations as those that directly discharge waste into waters, those that have animals coming into direct contact with waterways, or those that are “significantly contributing to impairment of a water body or watershed.”

        “That could get down to a smaller operation,” Mr. Fox said.

        Mr. Fisher said the farm bureau could take the EPA to court over how much it is leaving to its own interpretation.

        “When we are continually bombarded with unnecessary, unscientific regulations and costs you have to absorb — and you can't see the benefit to anybody — you get a little bit perturbed,” Mr. Fisher said. “They're wanting to keep lowering the threshold down to smaller and smaller operations. If you have one animal, they'd like to control you.”

        Mr. Fox disagrees.

        “It is absolutely voluntary for the vast majority of operations in this country,” he said. However, he acknowledged the EPA's goal is that every animal-feeding operation in the country have such a plan by 2009.

        The plans could include modifying animal diets to reduce the amount of nutrients in manure, changing the way manure is handled, keeping records to track manure, and adopting conservation practices that minimize the movement of pollutants from the soil into the water.

        Mr. Fox said the plans will not necessarily involve a lot of paperwork.

        “Many farmers will find it in their economic interest to keep track of their manure,” he said.

        Hog prices hit a historic low in December 1998, driving many farmers out of business. In 1999, the number of hog farms in the United States fell 15 percent to 90,190.

        But environmental groups insist the pollution guidelines are needed in Ohio and that the EPA rules will not put any more farms out of business.

        “These are things they should be doing already to make sure they are good neighbors and protective of the environment,” said Susan Studer of the Ohio Environmental Council.

        Mr. Harrick considers himself a good neighbor who is just trying to make a living in an industry where “nobody's made a dime” in the past year. He worries about the future of his farm and that of his 11-year-old son.

        “What's going to happen 10 years from now if he decides, 'Dad, I want to farm?'” Mr. Harrick said.


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- The war on manure