RAGERSVILLE, Ohio – A dozen Tuscarawas County farmers sat around a table in the local township building and plotted strategy.
Surrounded by pizza boxes and pop cans, the livestock producers highlighted key phrases, asked questions, and tried to make sense of what they were reading. They shared photocopies of a passage from the Federal Register and reviewed summaries from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The farmers were tackling a project few individual farmers try on their own: sending formal comments to the U.S. EPA on a rule proposal.
The target is the EPA’s draft Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation rules, open for public comment through July 30.
The farmers are not part of any organized effort; they have never done this before. But they see the proposed rules as a serious threat to their farms – and they decided to do something about it, to make their voice heard.
“It’s very involved and it’s very expensive and it’s going to threaten our livelihoods,” said dairyman Dean Putt, who rallied the troops. “And it’s just the beginning.”
The farmers live in one of the watersheds under close scrutiny by the Ohio EPA. The scenic valley lies just east of Sugarcreek, Ohio, and is home to a concentrated number of livestock, including dairy, poultry and general livestock operations.
According to the county Soil and Water Conservation District, of the 10,400 milk cows in Tuscarawas County, about half are located in the East Branch Sugar Creek Watershed, an area comprising only about 5 percent of the county’s total area.
The concentration of dairy operations in this watershed has historical roots, dating back to the early 1800s when Swiss settlers came to this area, bringing with them their cheese-making traditions. Many of today’s dairies are owned and operated by the third or fourth generation, direct descendants of these early settlers.
Gary Burky is the fourth generation of his family to farm in the valley and his son, Chad, is the fifth generation. His concern with the proposed rules is the cost of compliance and the cost of permits, which various sources estimate range anywhere from $5,200 to $42,000, and on up.
“It’s just not clear where they’re going with these regulations. Being a family farm, we’re more concerned about our natural resources,” Burky said. “But we watch that close enough, I feel.”
Burdening farms with costly regulations could force some farms to sell the cows – an option that carries untold economic losses to Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“We put a lot back into the area,” Burky said, adding that local farmers contribute at least $1 million to the local community and most of that stays in the community.
The proposed rules.
The EPA is looking at changing the definition of a CAFO from its current 1,000 or more animal unit level. The new requirements would apply to as many as 39,000 livestock farms. Currently, only an estimated 2,500 farms have permits under the Clean Water Act.
The rules propose either a two-tier or a three-tier CAFO definition.
In the two-tier structure, a livestock farm would be a CAFO if it has 500 animal units or more (the equivalent of 350 mature dairy cattle or 50,000 chickens). Farms with fewer animals could be designated a CAFO on a case-by-case basis.
In the three-tier proposal, a CAFO would be defined as having more than 1,000 animal units; or if it has more than 300 (200 mature dairy cows or 30,000 chickens) animal units and deemed a risk to water quality; or if the farm was otherwise “designated” a CAFO.
The EPA is also considering a 750 animal unit threshold.
Any farm designated a CAFO would be required to apply for NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination system) permits unless it can prove that they have no “potential to discharge.”
Currently, Ohio farms have not been required to seek the NPDES permit. Ohio’s Permit-to-Install program requires operations with more than 1,000 animal units to get approval of its treatment and disposal system prior to construction.
Other proposed changes broaden the CAFO definition to include the land application areas under the control of the CAFO, meaning land not owned by the farmer but used to spread the manure.
The current effluent guidelines include an exemption when a catastrophic storm causes an overflow from a facility designed to contain manure and runoff during a 25-year, 24-hour storm. The proposed rule would eliminate that 25-year, 24-hour storm permit exemption, which concerns many livestock owners.
The changes will target the “characteristics” of the water farms discharge and will likely create a “zero discharge” guideline.
Another change that raised red flags to the Ohio producers states that processors are required to “exercise substantial operational control” over contract growers to be co-permitted.
Several proposed changes governing effluent guidelines also concern local farmers. One in particular prohibits application of manure and wastewater to land within 100 feet of surface water, tile line intakes, sinkholes or agricultural well heads.
The actual rule proposal covers 406 pages.
“No one denies we have a problem,” said producer Dean Putt, “but our generation and generations before us have made great strides.”
“We need to let them know how we feel.”
(Susan Crowell can be reached at 1-800-837-3419 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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An environmental protection primer
303(d) List – States are required by the Clean Water Act to keep a prioritized inventory of water bodies whose main uses (water supply, recreation, fishing) are “impaired” by pollution.
TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) – The TMDL is the maximum amount of total pollutants, from all sources, that a body of water can tolerate without unacceptable adverse affects to water quality. The 303(d) list is used to select the most threatened streams for TMDL evaluation.
Point Source – A point source is a source of pollution that can be traced to a single point; for example, a pipe or ditch.
NPDES (National Pollution Discharge Elimination System) Permit – A permit that allows the discharge of pollutants into a water body from a point source. EPA regulates the level of pollutants by requiring waste to undergo specific treatment procedures before it is discharged.
Non-point source – A source of pollution that cannot be attributed to a point source. Non-point sources include water runoff from all land, including farms and forests.
CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) – Currently definition: An operation involving more than 1,000 animals, fed or maintained for a total of 45 days or more in any 12-month period, and where crops, vegetation, forage growth, or post-harvest residues are not sustained over any portion of the lot facility in the normal growing season.
AFOs with 301-1,000 animal units are CAFOs if they meet one of the specific criteria addressing the method of discharge. AFOs can be designated a CAFO on a case-by-case basis if the NPDES-authorized permitting authority determines that it is a significant contributor of pollution to waters of the United States.
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To learn more … To get a copy of the proposed NPDES regulations and effluent guidelines for CAFOs, check the EPA Office of Wastewater Management’s Web site, www.epa.gov/owm/afo.htm; or write: Office of Wastewater management, Permits Division, U.S. EPA, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington DC 20460.
Local offices of soil and water conservation districts should also have additional information.