An Unsteady Balance for Virginia’s Farms and Clean Water

Photo by Tusik Only

Millions of livestock animals are raised in the Shenandoah Valley, a region that by most standards is the breadbasket of Virginia. Agriculture has intensified over the past 40 years, as landowners work to produce more with their limited acreage and to out-strip the drop in commodity prices. The result? The confinement of animals in what are known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). CAFOs allow farmers to house, feed, and care for large numbers of animals as economically as possible in order to meet increasing demand.

Along with the prosperity that has come with the growth of poultry and dairy farms in the valley, a legacy of waste management issues has also developed. Hundreds of millions of pounds of manure are produced each year, much of which can be recycled as fertilizer, but the animal agriculture industry has shown it needs regulations to ensure responsible manure storage and disposal. In the decades before regulations existed, so much manure was spread on the land that tens of thousands of acres now have a tremendous build-up of fertilizer.

Virginia is the 2nd largest contributor of Nitrogen and the largest contributor of Phosphorous in the Chesapeake Bay.

This build up of fertilizer on the land release pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorous into surrounding bodies of water. Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution causes excessive algae growth, which severely impacts river use and recreation, inhibiting fishing, swimming, tubing, and paddling. Algae degrades the health of the ecosystem by depleting oxygen and sunlight, and, in some instances, releases dangerous toxins. Many of our members have seen the effects of agricultural pollution in the form of algae blooms clogging the Shenandoah River, or the “dead zones” in the Chesapeake Bay.

The regulation of discharges from CAFOs is essential to reducing pollution in Virginia waterways and the Bay. Out of the six states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, Virginia is the second-largest contributor of nitrogen and the largest contributor of phosphorous. Agriculture in Virginia, including CAFOs, causes at least one-third of this pollution.

On September 17, 2014 Shenandoah Riverkeeper, represented by the Environmental Integrity Project and joined by a number of other local environmental groups, petitioned the EPA to revoke Virginia’s authority to manage the Clean Water Act Program. This petition was prompted by what we feel are fatal flaws in Virginia’s proposed CAFO permitting program and by delays in initiating permitting.

EPA delegated Clean Water Act authority and responsibility for establishing a discharge permitting program to Virginia in 1975. In comparison to other states with similar programs, Virginia has done a good job in regulating discharges from CAFOs. But, judging from the continued water quality issues in the Valley, there is more to be done. As a start, Virginia must begin implementing the federal CAFO permitting program in addition to the state program.

Currently, the state program fails to allow any citizen review of the permits and does not collect adequate information regarding how individual CAFOs plan to manage their manure—both requirements for permitting procedures under the Clean Water Act.

The Clean Water Act is structured so that states may be “delegated” to enforce the law in their jurisdictions. While a state may impose more stringent regulations, it must at least meet the standards set forth in the federal law. If a state fails to meet these standards, the EPA is empowered to revoke the state’s authority to implement the law.

Virginia is required to implement a CAFO permitting program that fully complies with the Clean Water Act. However, Virginia’s inspection system does allow for the proper identification of CAFOs which require discharge permits, causing delays in permit issuance and unregulated discharges. While Virginia has recently developed a permit template, it excludes public review until the final permit is already approved. The most troubling part of this permit is that the state does not require the CAFO operator to submit their Nutrient Management Plan during the application process, a necessary part in ensuring manure is managed lawfully. These deficiencies are in clear violation of the Clean Water Act.

The de-delegation petition filed by Shenandoah Riverkeeper highlights these major deficiencies for the EPA.While the petition seems like a drastic measure, it will provide the push needed for Virginia to fulfill its legal duties, and help to limit the nitrogen and phosphorous pollution going into the Shenandoah River, making this just one more step in our work to free the Shenandoah River from the clutches of the algae invasion!