EPA praises Maryland's farm pollution control efforts, skips shortcomings

Good news only: EPA press release hails Maryland farm pollution control efforts, skips flaws agency found.

The Environmental Protection Agency has praised Maryland's efforts to curb farm animal pollution of the Chesapeake Bay, calling them "robust and well-implemented." But the laudatory federal press release Monday omitted any mention of compliance and inspection shortcomings that agency officials found in the state.

The EPA completed its assessment Monday of farm animal pollution controls in the six-state bay watershed, by issuing reports on Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia. The agency earlier this year had rated New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

While agency press releases gave more mixed reviews of farm animal pollution reduction efforts in Delaware and West Virginia, the public statement about Maryland was uniformly positive - making no mention of problems identified in the agency's 50-page assessment of the state's regulations and programs.

The EPA report notes, for instance, that 98.6 percent of Maryland farms required to do so had submitted "nutrient management plans" spelling out how much fertilizer they intended to use. But only two-thirds of those farms checked had up-to-date plans and were following them, the agency review adds.

The state did issue 211 warnings to correct major violations, and levied $21,000 in fines to 33 farmers, the EPA reported. Many of the problems found were for missing or incomplete plans or reports, and only 3 percent were found actually applying too much fertilizer to their fields, where it might pollute nearby water ways.

But even EPA's review failed to note that the Maryland Department of Agriculture had acknowledged in its own annual report that it saw a "drop in compliance" in 2014.

The agency's review also detailed some shortcomings in compliance with state regulation of farms with large herds or flocks of farm animals - the vast majority of them raising chickens.

In 2014, the Maryland Department of the Environment inspected just 9 percent of the 548 farms registered in the state as "concentrated animal feeding operations." That's less than half the coverage required. A spot-check by EPA of regulatory files for 29 farms found that just 55 percent of them had been inspected in the previous five years.

Of those that were inspected, the EPA found, nearly one-third had compliance issues for which there was no followup by state regulators documented in the files. 

"This includes one facility that was inspected three months after being permitted and was discovered during that inspection to have 14 deficiencies," the EPA report observed.

A spokesman in EPA's Philadelphia regional office said no officials were available to discuss the agency's reviews. But David Sternberg, the spokesman, noted that Maryland has regulated more large livestock and poultry farms than any other state in the bay region and that it has pledged to increase its inspection rate by 2016.

"Maryland committed resources to the program and they are out there implementing the program," Sternberg wrote in an email.

Valerie Connelly, executive director of the Maryland Farm Bureau, said the EPA assessment shows "Maryland farmers are stepping up to the plate and doing what they are being asked to do." She called the compliance problems EPA identified "little things," mostly paperwork violations, and said she hoped they wouldn't be used as an excuse to increase regulation of state growers.

Two environmental activists took somewhat divergent views. 

Beth McGree, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that despite its shortcomings, Maryland appears to be making a stronger effort to curb farm animal pollution than all other bay states. Delaware and West Virginia, by contrast, had required just three large livestock and poultry farms to get permits, compared with 548 in Maryland.

"The question for EPA is, 'Why haven't you pushed West Virginia and Delaware ...?'" McGee said. "You could look at those two states and say they’re not doing their job." 

But Evan Isaacson with the Center for Progressive Reform in Washington said EPA's review suggest Maryland's farm pollution control efforts are anything but robust, even if other states - particularly Pennsylvania - are doing worse.

"Maryland is showing pretty poor progress on the agricultural front," he contended.

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