Assessing EPA Efforts to Clean Up Chesapeake Bay

Thursday, May 27, 2010

On April 23, the Environmental Working Group’s Rebecca Sutton, PhD, submitted a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency articulating EWG’s support for the Agency's proposed pollution controls. Her letter also urged the EPA to step up its efforts to combat one of the biggest threats to the bay — phosphorous and nitrogen runoff from agriculture — as it goes forward with regulatory and enforcement strategies.

A month later, Dr. Sutton is weighing in with recommendations for EPA on how to better target their clean up efforts.

EPA’s strategy misses the boat when it comes to phosphorus pollution in the Bay. The Chesapeake Bay poultry industry has left behind a legacy of phosphorus-contaminated soils and streams, and the actions outlined by EPA will do little to bring the ecosystem back into balance. Poultry giants like Perdue keep making money, while small farmers and taxpayers are footing the bill for the Bay.

EPA should be congratulated for their plans to unite federal, state, and local agencies in a collective effort to heal the Bay. However, EPA's Chesapeake Bay strategy falls short by:

· Ignoring the basic phosphorus imbalance plaguing the region.

· Disregarding the role of wealthy poultry integrators like Perdue in the pollution of the Chesapeake Bay. Giant chicken processors strictly control the growing methods for their contract growers while avoiding responsibility for the massive amount of pollution produced.

· EPA's strategy continues to rely on a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) water quality permitting system that consistently penalizes contract farmers without placing responsibility for poultry waste on large, lucrative poultry integrators

· EPA also adversely relies on a largely voluntary approach to reducing pollution from farms, despite the decades of failure this approach has brought to the Chesapeake Bay.

· EPA also permits up to four more years of business-as-usual farming, with as-yet undefined new rules not going into effect until 2014.

· The Agency also overlooks market development of alternative uses for poultry manure, a key source of phosphorus pollution.

· EPA also neglects to seek extensive soil phosphorus information held by states and kept from the public, preventing a full assessment of this critical source of phosphorus contamination.

A recent analysis from experts at Maryland nonprofit Watershed Stewardship reveals levels of phosphorus-rich manure that far exceed crop needs for the nutrient in several Chesapeake Bay counties supporting animal agriculture. Decades of manure disposal through intensive application to farm fields as fertilizer has left soils and streams over-saturated with phosphorus; according to USGS, phosphorus concentrations in surface waters of the Delmarva Peninsula are among the highest in the nation. While EPA suggests encouraging farmers to reduce use of phosphorus fertilizers in its strategy, it makes no mention of what to do with millions of tons of excess manure excreted each year.

From 1987 to 2007, phosphorus inputs to Mid-Atlantic croplands via manure and fertilizer have averaged 276 million pounds per year, while phosphorus outputs in the form of harvested crops averaged about half that, just 131 million pounds, according to the Mid-Atlantic Water Program, a partnership of USDA and state land-grant universities. For 2007 alone, phosphorus inputs to the region exceeded outputs by 60 percent. Phosphorus remaining in the Mid-Atlantic landscape can become a source of agricultural phosphorus pollution for Chesapeake Bay.


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