More than four years after Maryland first moved to regulate its largest poultry and livestock farms, nearly 30 percent, or 169 operations, still do not have required state permits mandating measures to control polluted runoff from their chicken houses or feedlots.
An environmental watchdog group, the Center for Progressive Reform, contends the state is lagging in protecting the Chesapeake Bay from pollution from such large-scale farms. The Washington-based center said in a new report that the state's regulatory effort is hampered by a lack of staff and skimpy inspections. The report maps out every farm's location and how long it's taken to get a permit.
"They're dragging their feet on this for reasons that are not clear," said Rena Steinzor, the center's president and a professor at the University of Maryland's law school. "None of this is backbreaking in terms of what is required."
A top official with the Maryland Department of the Environment said it takes time to launch a regulatory program affecting so many businesses. Horacio Tablada, the department's land management director, attributed the backup to shortages of permit writers on staff and of qualified federal, state or private personnel to write required pollution-control plans for farms. Even so, he said, the state should complete issuing permits for all of its largest animal farms a year from now.
"We're not falling behind; we're getting ahead," Tablada said. Maryland leads other bay watershed states, he said, in adopting regulations to reduce farm pollution.
Nearly 600 Maryland farms have notified the state since early 2009 that they intend to apply for permits as "animal-feeding operations." Permits are required under federal and state regulations when waste from raising thousands of chickens or hundreds of cows could run off into streams.
Of 588 farms indicating they intend to get permits, the state has registered 419, or 71 percent, according to figures from Tablada.
Nearly half the farms without permits have not completed their applications, Tablada said. Some have been that way for nearly three years, the center pointed out. The hang-up often is over submission of a "comprehensive nutrient management plan," which details a farm's fertilizer use and conservation measures to keep pollution from running off.
Tablada said delays in those cases stem from a shortage of qualified people to write the plans.
Farmers can get the plans written for free by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service. The number of NRCS staff has shrunk by three since last year, said Tim Pilkowski, acting state conservationist for the service's Maryland operation. But he noted that farmers can hire a federally certified "technical service provider" to write the plan, with the cost mostly covered.
"The resources are there — it's a matter of utilizing them," Pilkowski said.
More than half the outstanding applications are complete but face another reason for delay; the MDE has just three people to review them and write permits, Tablada said.
In its report, the Center for Progressive Reform contended that the state should find a way to eliminate the backlog promptly and increase farm inspections. It noted that the state is failing to collect fees for processing the permits.
The report pointed out that as part of Maryland's bay cleanup plan, the O'Malley administration has promised to curb pollution from animal-feeding operations by 248,000 pounds of nitrogen and 41,000 pounds of phosphorus per year.
"If farmers and meat producers don't pitch in, the bay will become saturated with dead zones," Steinzor said. "Requirements must be reasonable and cost-effective, but they must exist."
Tablada acknowledged that farms usually are required during the permit review to upgrade their pollution-control measures, so a delay in processing delays the upgrades. But he said farms aren't free to pollute while they're waiting. They must sign "compliance schedules" under which they agree to abide by nine "minimum standards to protect water quality."
"It's not the perfect world," he said, "but it's the best we can do under the circumstances we have."
The MDE has two inspectors to check animal farms, down one from its normal complement. But Tablada said his staff is on pace to visit all farms with pending applications in the coming year, while checking up on 50 or 60 registered operations and responding to complaints. He said the department has money to process the permits, so doesn't need to charge farmers.
Valerie Connelly, a lobbyist for the Maryland Farm Bureau, said she's heard no complaints from farmers about the permit delays.
"That being said, nobody would object to more funding to provide more plan writers or personnel to get this job done," she said. "Nobody likes waiting in line and being told to come back next year."
The center's report questioning the state's oversight of large animal farms comes on the heels of the Maryland Department of Agriculture retreating last week from adopting limits on where farmers may spread manure to fertilize crops.
Farmers opposed the regulation, saying it could disrupt their livelihood for uncertain benefits. The limits would have pinched the hardest on the lower Eastern Shore, where millions of tons of chicken manure are generated yearly by poultry houses and widely used as fertilizer.