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The biggest problem for the bay: animal waste

Water SupplyAgricultureU.S. Geological SurveyU.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Millions of tons of one of theChesapeake Bay'slargest sources of pollution continue to be dumped onto farm lands without proper regulation. Farm animals produce 44 million tons of manure annually in the bay watershed, and most of it is collected and disposed of on farmland — or left where it falls.

This ranks the bay region in the top 10 percent in the nation for manure-related nitrogen runoff, and the problem of proper management of this waste is exacerbated by the fact that three highly concentrated animal feeding operation areas contribute more than 90 percent of the manure. The Delmarva Peninsula, one of these three areas, has some of the greatest concentrations of chicken farms in the country.

According to theU.S. Environmental Protection AgencyBay Program, in 2009 agricultural manure contributed more than 20 percent of all nitrogen and 26 percent of the phosphorus flowing to the bay system. This exceeds the combined levels of nutrients flowing from all wastewater treatment plants handling the waste from 13 million people and all industrial dischargers. Human waste disposal is strictly regulated, and we have made great strides in meeting requirements at wastewater plants at great public costs exceeding several billion dollars. Unfortunately, the agricultural lobby continues to block efforts to sensibly regulate animal manure.

The costs of this failure are high both in the destruction of bay water quality and the contamination of groundwater: The United States Geological Survey (USGS) concluded that 15 percent of all Delmarva drinking water wells contained nitrates exceeding EPA maximum-contaminant levels. More than 70 percent of all wells tested had nitrate. A USGS study concluded that "Concentrations of nitrate and herbicide concentrations in ground water of the Delmarva Peninsula are among the highest in the Nation." The major source of this excessive nitrogen is chicken and other animal manure, as well as chemical fertilizers.

Soil surveys document that much of the soil on the Delmarva Peninsula already tests "optimum" or higher for phosphorus and therefore should not have any animal manure applied to it. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation in 2005 reported that about two-thirds of soils in the watershed test "optimum" or higher for phosphorus and should receive no phosphorus fertilizer, and certainly no phosphorus-rich animal waste (poultry litter, municipal sewage sludge or manure).

Many federal and state programs provide significant funding for farms to better manage animal excrement, such as the Maryland Agricultural Cost Share Program, which I helped develop and gain passage of in 1982. This program has provided more than $140 million in taxpayer-funded grants to farmers, including up to 87.5 percent of the cost of manure handling structures as well as subsidies to transport manure off the farm.

Unlike the millions of tons of animal excrement, the land application of treated biosolids from advanced human wastewater treatment systems, called human sludge, has been strictly regulated since the mid-1980s. The Maryland Department of Environment adopted these regulations at the urging of the farm community. Our group of Senior Scientists and Policymakers for the Bay has consistently proposed that the state adopt parallel measures for animal manure applied to land. After all, human sludge is treated in advanced wastewater systems meeting stringent federal and state requirements, while animal excrement is land-applied just as it comes out of the animals.

On Oct. 27, the Maryland Department of Agriculture proposed changes to its nutrient management regulations to deal with the problem — although the changes were far short of what was necessary. When both the farm lobby and the environmental community objected, the regulations were withdrawn and have not been reissued.

The MDA stated that one of the key purposes of the withdrawn regulations was "to achieve consistency in how all nutrient sources are managed and applied to agricultural land. ... That consistency is important if the State of Maryland is to meet its Total Daily Maximum Load requirements, as set forth in EPA's Watershed Implementation Plan for restoring the Chesapeake Bay." The MDA proposals were far short of attaining that consistency with the sludge regulations.

Wastewater treatment plants have met or are nearing their required reductions, while agriculture lags far behind. Gov.Martin O'Malley's proposed doubling of the flush tax to complete the $1.4 billion nutrient removal job at sewerage treatment plants is before the legislature, as is septic tank legislation. These tanks contribute about 6 percent of the nitrogen and close to zero of the phosphorus. The much larger problem of farm animal manure from concentrated feeding operations seems to go unchallenged.

Legislation to deal with this problem is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday in Annapolis. The bill would require much better management of animal manure and all biosolids disposed on farm land. We wouldn't let a town of 25,000 people dump human manure untreated on open lands; why should we allow the dumping of the equivalent amount of manure from 150,000 chickens without meaningful regulation?

Properly regulating the disposal of raw animal excrement can be achieved at a very small fraction of the cost of other measures to restore the bay, but unless policymakers aggressively address the problem and overcome "big chicken" and the rest of the farm lobby, the bay will only continue to decline as the manure is piled on.

Gerald Winegrad is a former Maryland state senator who chaired the Subcommittee on the Environment and Chesapeake Bay and chairs the Senior Scientists and Policymakers for the Bay. He teaches Chesapeake Bay and wildlife management courses at the University of Maryland. His email is gwwabc@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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