TCS Daily

Can Farmers Put a Lid on Animal Waste?

By Lynn Scarlett - February 19, 2001 12:00 AM

For three decades, the environmental spotlight has shone on pollution-belching factories. Now agriculture faces increased scrutiny. In March, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will hold eight hearings across the nation to present proposed new regulations for some animal-feeding operations. A high-end estimate puts the price tag of the proposed rules at close to $1 billion.

The rules, though, do offer a ray of hope to farmers and other Americans who want environmental protection but without the red tape that can strangle agricultural communities. EPA is promoting voluntary options and compliance assistance through several special agreements with operators of hog, poultry and other animal-feeding farms.

This "lighter touch" approach is likely to save farmers money and generate greater environmental protection than old-style regulatory sticks. Some participating farmers may even escape permit requirements and punishment altogether.

Unfortunately, the failed old-style regulation, not the voluntary, incentive-based programs, still receives EPA's greatest attention.

Pollution problems for animal-feed operations have hardly gone unnoticed in the past three decades. As early as 1974, EPA established rules governing some animal waste. But the rules applied to only a fraction of the 376,000 animal-feeding operations, most of which are small. Even many of those facilities covered by the rules operated without required permits. Of the estimated 13,000 large, regulated operations, only about 2,500 had permits.

This hit or miss approach to the environmental problems at feedlots meant some operations were polluting surface and groundwater, sometimes seriously. Feedlots are significant contributors to the agricultural pollution that is the source of nearly 60 percent of environmental impairment of rivers and 30 percent of lake impairments.

Too much manure runoff into surface or groundwater can cause excess algae formation that, in turn, can lower oxygen levels in water and cause fish and other aquatic life to die. An 8 million gallon manure spill from poultry operations in North Carolina, for example, is believed to have killed 450,000 fish from a pfisteria outbreak.

And on occasion, graver public health problems have surfaced. An e. coli outbreak at the Washington County Fair in New York that resulted in two deaths and 71 hospitalizations was most likely caused by manure runoff. So, too, it is thought, was an e. coli outbreak in Walkerton, Ontario, that caused seven deaths and a thousand illnesses. And Milwaukee suffered 100 deaths from c. parvum in its drinking water believed to come from cow manure contamination.

Old-style regulations targeting feedlot operations tended to focus on technology mandates to try and remedy such environmental havoc. Regulators often assumed that animal waste pollution largely resulted from improperly designed animal-waste storage facilities or poorly designed and maintained waste lagoons. Prescribed remedies then centered on mandating new waste-storage and treatment structures.

But down-on-the-farm assessments belied the inside-beltway's top-down wisdom.

Assessments undertaken through a voluntary pork-producer program at 1,200 pork feedlots in key pork-producing states such as Iowa and North Carolina showed that 67 percent of all environmental problems uncovered could be corrected through changes in management practices.

The voluntary program was initiated in 1997 by a coalition of pork producers, agricultural engineers, Cooperative Extension Service, and the National Resource Conservation Service. Under it, pork producers voluntarily agreed to an environmental assessment by an outside expert. The expert then worked with each producer to implement operational --and sometimes technological -- changes. The outside expert then returned periodically to review the producers' progress.

One result: The price tag for fixing the feedlots' problems ranged from nothing at all to $5,000. Only one participant needed to make a structural investment -- to the tune of $22,000. EPA experts had initially put the price for fixing the problem at $1 million.

Another hands-on voluntary pilot project conducted by the pork producers last year showed similar results, with 91 percent of all problems handled by changes in management practices rather than through costly construction investments.

In addition to cost cutting, these voluntary assessments yielded another prize -- rapid remedy of environmental problems.

Where the old regulatory approach only scrutinized a fraction of feedlot operations, leaving many environmental problems unnoticed and unattended, the voluntary program with its six-month review of participating feedlots allowed real measurement of environmental progress.

In the second pilot project, nearly half of all management problems had been addressed in just six months. And this likely understates short-term compliance with recommendations, as some management changes had to wait for the appropriate annual season for implementation. Over 70 percent of the high-risk problems were fixed within six months.

Environmental lobbyists who've attacked such voluntary environmental management programs as ineffective or, worse, as empowering the private sector to pollute, apply a double standard in their criticism.

Thirty years of old-style regulations failed adequately to tackle problems associated with feedlot operations. Inattention was one cause of this as regulators spent time and resources on other problems. In addition, federal regulators rather than local folks set regulatory priorities, so states where agricultural problems might have loomed larger expended their resources on air pollution instead. A permit- rather than results-driven structure further fed failure. And, finally, punitive regulations deterred farmers from stepping forward to ask for help.

Voluntary environmental assessment programs, such as those pioneered by the pork -- and now poultry - industries, overcome these problems. They offer farmers assistance to comply, enticing them to participate. A focus on performance, coupled with periodic reviews, generates rapid remedies. And on-site reviews of individual feedlots lead to recommendations tailored to real solutions, rather one-size-fits all that may hit or miss.

The inclusion of a voluntary component to the newly proposed feedlot regulations offers a ray of hope they may succeed where old-style regulation has failed. Those who participate in voluntary assessments can escape the punitive club of federal and state enforcers. And regulators can then focus on those very few who are negligent in curtailing their pollution and pose the greatest danger to nature and people. 

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