Stools of the Trade

PA farmers take a dump all over their neighbors.

By Daniel Denvir
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Nov. 10, 2009

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According to a new report from the environmental group PennFuture, we Pennsylvanians are shitting all over our downstream neighbors and, in doing so, killing the Chesapeake Bay. OK, it’s animal poop, but it’s still our responsibility. Just a short drive west of Philly, farm animals in Lancaster and Chester Counties are pooing all over the place. While such behavior is, to be sure, expected from an animal, farmers are dumping a dangerous quantity of their manure into our waterways. The water we pollute in the Octoraro watershed flows into the Susquehanna River and from there, to North America’s largest estuary.

Attempts to clean up the polluted Bay have fallen short in the past, in large part because its watershed stretches across six states and D.C., fertile ground for coordinated incompetence amongst a host of political and business interests tied to the polluting status quo. A number of factors, however, suggest that a more serious clean up might be on its way. A 1999 lawsuit against the EPA under the Clean Water Act has forced the government to implement a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plan by 2011, what the EPA wittily describes as a “pollution diet” for the Bay. The 64,000-square-mile area of the Bay watershed will make it the largest plan of such in the country. And on Monday, the Obama administration issued a comprehensive plan for Bay cleanup, following through on an executive order signed in May.

The proposed Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Restoration Act (S.1816 in the Senate, H.R. 3852 in the House), a reauthorization and expansion of the Chesapeake Bay Program, is another component of Bay clean up. The legislation certainly sets the stage for enforcement that is both more vigorous and more accountable. In addition to providing funds for monitoring and inspection work, the legislation also defines strict parameters for the TMDL and increases penalties for states that don’t live up to their obligations.

Unsurprisingly, the legislation has provoked opposition amongst the agribusiness lobby, and no member of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation has added their name as a cosponsor. (To be fair, it was just introduced on Oct. 20). Seven Pennsylvania congressmen represent Bay Watershed districts.

PennFuture President Jan Jarrett says the bill should be unobjectionable, given that it will provide funding to help farmers and counties comply with many rules that are going to be implemented no matter what.

“Absent the Cardin legislation, you don’t get the funding to do things right. The TMDL is already going to require better manure control,” says Jarrett.

The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau told PW they would continue to study the legislation, but it seems likely they will oppose it. Their counterparts in Virginia have panned the bill as an economically harmful expansion of regulation.

But as the debate goes on, the shit keeps building up.

The problem, as PennFuture describes it in this scatological tour de force of a report, is the manure’s nitrogen and phosphorus content. That’s 105,937,008 liquid gallons in the Octoraro watershed each year.

The manure, ostensibly spread on the land to fertilize crops, is really more a backdoor way for farmers to dump waste. Particularly revealing is the common practice of spreading manure on snow or ice-covered land, barren of crops. Even without snow, plants only absorb 15 to 20 percent of the manure—the rest runs off into waterways, fertilizing ecocidal algae blooms downstream. In a process called eutrophication, the manure spurs the growth of algae, which, in turn, consumes the oxygen in water, creating “dead zones” void of aquatic life. 

Much of this excess animal crap is produced by bigger farmers, mainly Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO). Over 75 percent of land in the Octoraro watershed, which covers much of Chester and Lancaster counties, is dedicated to agriculture. Half of the freshwater that flows into the Chesapeake arrives from Pennsylvania.

But some Pennsylvania politicians don’t seem eager to take responsibility for our shit. Republican congressman Glenn Thompson’s spokeswoman Tina Kreisher—formerly in charge of Communications at Bush’s Department of the Interior—says “the congressman has always said that for a Chesapeake Bay cleanup there has to be a dedicated funding source.”

In what could only be described as a Republican sense of humor when it comes to the environment, Kreisher referred me to HR 2227, a bill that would raise money for Chesapeake cleanup by allowing increased offshore drilling for oil and gas. Two birds with one stone for the deficit-paranoid and pollution-sanguine Gentleman from Pennsylvania.

Other congressmen have either yet to formulate a position on the legislation or did not return calls at press time. 

And things are spinning wildly out of control. 
PennFuture reports that there has been a 40 percent increase in liquid manure since 2004. That’s 107,539,008 gallons a year, which, in case you have trouble (or are resisting) visualizing the amount of liquid poo we’re taking about, is “enough liquid manure to fill 13,000 milk tanker trucks.” Thanks, PennFuture—that shit is quite, um, palpable. Dry manure, for its part, has increased by 17 percent which, is “equal in weight to more than 30,000 Ford Explorers.”

This shitstorm, in turn, has led to a 20 percent increase in total nitrogen produced in the watershed. 

Jarrett believes the increase in manure is the result of agricultural consolidation in rural Pennsylvania, with farms becoming fewer in number but larger in size. And according to Jarrett, regulators currently fail to take into consideration the sensitivity of nearby waterways when considering an application for a new CAFO or for an expansion of an existing operation—something that would change under the proposed legislation.

“You finally have the tools to say ‘no’ when there’s a proposed expansion or additional facility,” says Jarrett.

PennFuture also faults weak monitoring and toothless enforcement mechanisms.

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1. Pat Buckwalter said... on Jul 19, 2013 at 09:35AM

“Went for my morning walk and discovered liquid manure covering large area of the hill I live on . The bottom of the hill is the boundary between Lancaster and Chester Co. The boundary line is the Octorara Creek. Heavy rains will send lots of liquid manure into the creek. The area looks like a hazmat zone. I don't understand how this can be permitted. The area is not part of a farm. This street is mostly residential and I have never seen this on the area in question before. So sad!”


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