In play was the renewal of a Virginia general permit regulating the state’s largest confined dairy, cattle, swine, and poultry farms -- generally those farms with more than 300 animal units.
Current permit requirements, which expire in November and are being updated and renewed by the board for another 10 years, do not require these farms to fence their animals out of streams and rivers in order to keep their waste from fouling public waters.
For many months, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and other conservation stakeholders have asked the board to include a requirement for stream fencing in the permit. Excluding farm animals from streams is demonstrably a cost-effective way to reduce erosion, bacteria, and nutrient pollution in rural streams, as well as to prevent disease in livestock.
Of course, reducing nutrient and sediment pollution in state waterways is the primary goal of the state’s Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, Virginia’s plan to restore the Bay and its rivers to good health. The Blueprint calls for all of the Bay restoration partners to reach 60 percent of their pollution reduction goals by 2017 and to have 100% of their pollution controls in place by 2025.
So given an opportunity to substantially cut runoff pollution from animal farms with this permit, you’d think Virginia would jump at the chance. You’d be wrong.
The vote came after officials from the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) – yes, the agency charged with protecting water quality in the Commonwealth -- argued that Virginia law does not specifically allow the board to require stream fencing in the permit. Even if it did, the officials said, the requirement would make farmers ineligible to receive state cost-share to help pay for the fencing, per existing state policy.
CBF and law students from the College of William and Mary's Marshall-Wythe School of Law argued to the contrary, citing the Virginia Code, including sections that give the Water Board responsibility to “prevent any increase in pollution” and to “reduce existing pollution.”
“CBF maintains that the board cannot, consistent with its statutory duties, confirm for the public that the animal feeding operations you authorize through this general permit will ‘prevent any increase in pollution’ and ‘reduce existing pollution’ unless [the permit] restricts livestock access to state waters,” Ann Jennings, CBF Virginia executive director, told board members.
“Further, without such a requirement, the board cannot prevent further inputs of sediment, nutrient, and bacteria pollution to impaired public waters in violation of water quality standards, particularly in light of the fact that the vast majority of local stream impairments in Virginia are from bacteria and the primary source is livestock access to streams."
As to the question of cost-share assistance, Virginia has made exceptions before to allow other farming practices to receive state funding help, and it could easily do so again to include stream fencing, Jennings said.
EPA also weighed in on the permit issue, sending a letter to DEQ this week expressing concerns about whether the permit advances Virginia's Bay watershed implementation plan, or WIP.
“Given the strong commitments outlined for animal agricultural operations in the Commonwealth’s WIP, it is important that both state regulatory and non-regulatory programs are appropriately aligned to ensure that the WIP’s targets are achieved,” EPA Water Protection Division Director Jon Capacasa wrote.
But it all seemed too much for DEQ and Water Board members to accept. They rejected conservationists’ call to help Virginia’s right hand work in sync with its left. For now, Virginia will continue to talk a good game about reducing farm pollution. But today, the state failed to step up to the plate.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation