November 23, 2014

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Big farms, bigger mess: EPA tries to limit agriculture pollution

COLUMBUS — Environmental regulators are playing as strong a role as ever fighting pollution by Ohio’s giant livestock farms five years after the state handed its agriculture experts the job. State data show that the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has fielded more agriculture-related complaints on average since the power transfer, and EPA fines against megafarm operators since August 2002 have dwarfed those levied by the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

AP
Hogs are shown in a pen at a 4,800-head swine farm last month in Amanda, Ohio.

One reason for the shared authority: The U.S. EPA has yet to agree that the regulatory program run by Agriculture is meeting all the environmental standards necessary to govern as Ohio EPA did. In an April letter, Water Division Chief Jo Lynn Traub raised seven pages of concerns over Ohio’s rules for megafarms, mostly related to the way megafarms handle the manure their operations generate.

Agriculture receives most of the tax money spent on overseeing big farms: More than $9 million between 2001 and last year, and $3 million budgeted now.

State lawmakers in 2002 moved oversight of the farms to the Agriculture Department, an agency they viewed as more expert in dealing with farmers and farm issues.

Most of the enforcement against polluting farms was being handled by the Ohio Division of Wildlife, which watches out for the health of streams and tributaries where most of the runoff drains, state reports say. But farmers complained loudest about EPA, which carries the strongest legal hammer over them in the federal Clean Water Act.

“It (the shift of authority) has done what it was meant to do: It’s given comfort to the regulated community that they don’t have to deal with EPA as much and now they deal with their friends at ODA,” said Trent Dougherty, staff attorney for the Ohio Environmental Council. “And we are left with the same concerns about water quality that we had before.”

Critics contend that Agriculture has been powerless to stop development of concentrated animal operations that are now topping 4,000 swine, 9,000 cattle and more than 1.4 million laying chickens — pointing to the near doubling of the operations since the agency’s takeover.

Farmers, meanwhile, say they are simply employing the technology necessary to meet the needs of an ever more demanding public, which wants blemish-free meat and inexpensive eggs 365 days a year.

Agriculture has grandfathered in 86 megafarms that had been pending under EPA’s watch, and approved 82 permits to develop or expand, records show. Seventeen more permits — including Ohio’s largest swine, cattle and dairy operations yet — are in the works.

The pace of manure complaints to Wildlife has slowed since the change, with the division investigating 111 complaints of improper manure discharge, according to state data.

At EPA’s spill hotline, agriculture-related complaints have increased, averaging 44 a year compared with 38 a year during the five years before. Orders for environmental fixes by state Soil & Water Division Chief David Hanselmann are also on the rise, with five issued since the power transfer.

The state EPA also has levied more fines. The combined $379,250 it fined the former Buckeye Egg Farm, now Ohio Fresh Eggs, for environmental violations in 2005 and earlier this year is 22 times more than the $17,660 the Agriculture Department has fined all megafarm violators.

“A fine of $700, $200? That’s not a disincentive,” Dougherty said. “That’s a line item in a yearly budget for these operators.”

Water pollution remains the primary concern because the federal EPA concedes it knows virtually nothing about how much air pollution is caused by concentrated livestock and poultry operations. It has started a $14.6 million, two-year study of 20 farms in nine states, including Ohio, to measure the level of hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, dust and other chemicals they emit.

Ohio Agriculture officials say their program is a resounding success: There have been no repeats of the Buckeye Egg crisis, megafarms are required to meet stringent pollution containment standards, and inspectors are making more frequent and thorough visits.

State Agriculture Director Bob Boggs, appointed in January, said the strength of the department’s livestock environmental permitting program is not as much in its ability to punish violators as in preventing violations in the wake of Buckeye Egg.

The massive laying farm had a history of clean-water law violations and complaints from neighbors about fly and rodent infestations associated with hen manure. Though EPA had the role of levying the fines on the farm, Boggs noted that it was the Agriculture Department that revoked its permits to operate in 2003.

“I will maintain we do a lot better job in protecting the environment on these permitted farms than what’s been done in the small family farms over the years,” Boggs said.

At the 4,800-head swine farm that state inspector Jim Young visited one recent summer afternoon, manure was falling tidily through slats into a holding pit beneath the barn floor. Industrial sized fans blew most of the smell and flies off the pigs and piglets, which appeared pink and perky in their pens. A field where stored manure had been injected at a rate of 8,000 gallons an acre just two days earlier was nearly odor free.

Boggs said he intends to make adjustments to the permitting program, which may include a tracking system for megafarm manure that’s going to smaller farms, larger agricultural setbacks from streams, and a tougher than 95-percent standard for collection of farm sediment and pollution runoff.

Still, he said there will always be tradeoffs to agriculture.

“What the opposition doesn’t want to talk about is why do we need large farms in the first place, why is Ohio supporting them?” Boggs said. “The reason is we need the production.

“We are waging a war with the western part of the U.S. that has huge farms, much larger than ours, and if you want to lose that business to the West the way to do it is to not support at least some of these farms.”