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Aim Chesapeake "Pollution Diet" at the Worst Gluttons

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

On the first of the July, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a plan to put everyone who lives or works in the Chesapeake Bay watershed on a "rigorous pollution diet" intended to cut back on the quantities of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff that have turned large portions of the bay into oxygen-deprived "dead zones."

The agency's initial "draft allocations" for these two pollutants, which represent the latest federal effort to stem the long decline of the historic estuary, would set targets for reducing runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus from each of the six watershed states, the District of Columbia and the major river basins in the 64,000-square-mile watershed.

The draft allocations do look promising. Pamela Wood, writing in the Annapolis newspaper The Capital, breaks them down this way:

Just like dieters who count calories, residents, farmers and businesses in the Chesapeake Bay watershed will have to reduce the pollution that harms the bay and creates lifeless, oxygen-deprived dead zones.

The EPA announced that the entire Chesapeake Bay should have no more than 187.4 million pounds of nitrogen and 12.5 million pounds of phosphorus flowing into it annually from sewage plants, septic systems, farms and storm water runoff.

Last year's bay-wide pollution totals, by contrast, were 247.5 million pounds of nitrogen and 16.62 million pounds of phosphorus.

So whom will EPA target in its enforcement strategy to keep 60 million pounds of nitrogen and 4 million pounds of phosphorous out of the bay? According to EPA, the largest source of both pollutants is agriculture. And the NY Times reported last month (June 8th) that among others, the agency is taking aim at Amish "plain sect" dairy operations, which tend to eschew both modern technology and government regulation:

Last September, Mr. McGuigan and his colleagues visited 24 farms in a pocket of Lancaster County known as Watson’s Run to assess their practices. Twenty-three of the farms were plain sect; 17 were found to be managing their manure inadequately. The abundance of manure was also affecting water quality. Six of the 19 wells sampled contained E. coli bacteria, and 16 had nitrate levels exceeding those allowed by the E.P.A.

Persuading plain-sect farmers to install fences and buffers underwritten by federal grants has been challenging because of their tendency to shy from government programs, including subsidies. Members neither pay Social Security nor receive its benefits, for example.

It's certainly rare for farmers to turn down government subsidies, even those who are fierce critics of government spending. And as reported in the Times' story, Lancaster County "generates more than 61 million pounds of manure a year. That is 20 million pounds more than the next highest county on the list of bay polluters, and more than six times that of most other counties." That's a lot of pollution and it's good to see action, though let's hope it doesn't become just another glaring example of the inability of voluntary programs to mitigate pollution of the bay.

But according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the largest animal agriculture sources of pollution in the bay are big-time poultry producers. And a check of the EPA's enforcement website reveals that of the 33 Clean Water Act enforcement actions for 2009 and 2010 listed, only three target poultry farmers, though none of the violations targets poultry integrators like Perdue who are making all the money off this situation.

Putting the Bay on "a pollution diet" by going after Amish farmers while not aggressively pursuing industrial-scale corporate chicken producers like Perdue -- who reap profits by tightly controlling their contract growers while dodging environmental responsibility -- is akin to ordering a Diet Coke to go with your 20-piece bucket of wings.