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Pa. Farmers Bristle at EPA Inspections
Steve Graybeal, owner of a large dairy farm in southern Pennsylvania, bristles as he recalls the eight-hour visit that Environmental Protection Agency inspectors paid to his farm this summer.
“They almost have an agenda when they walk into this place,’’ he said, seated on the porch of his farmhouse. “It’s not coming in a cooperative manner; it’s an adversarial manner.”
Like many local farmers in Pennsylvania, Graybeal is tired of being blamed for pollution problems in the Chesapeake Bay, just because the state’s Susquehanna River sends so much damaging nitrogen and phosphorous downstream into the bay.
“It’s not like we’re the bad guys out to pollute the creek and they’re the saviors who are going to save the Chesapeake Bay,” Graybeal said. “It just isn’t so.”
David McGuigan, associate director of the EPA’s water protection division for the mid-Atlantic region, retorts: “We are not trying to be adversarial, but we have questions that we have to ask.’’ He added that the inspectors found Graybeal’s operation “far from sterling.”
Graybeal is one of many local farmers in Pennsylvania who are riled by the EPA’s recent crackdown on pollution-control practices on farms across the state, both large and small.
The EPA, responding to President Obama’s 2009 executive order to clean up the Chesapeake Bay watershed, has started a series of targeted inspections it hopes will motivate farmers to start abiding by regulations designed to reduce the pollutants running off croplands into nearby waterways and ultimately to the bay.
About half of the nutrients pouring into the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania comes from farms, mostly from the manure and fertilizer that farmers apply to their crops.
The Susquehanna is particularly important becomes it comes in at the northern extreme of the Chesapeake, so nutrients have time to travel down the entire length of the bay.
For the past 20 years, the EPA has drawn criticism from environmentalists who contend the agency has laxly enforced the Clean Water Act as it applies to farms throughout the Chesapeake’s six-state region. Pennsylvania, with roughly 65,000 farms, is of special interest to environmentalists worried about the poor water quality in the bay.
“The laws that were put into place have been ineffective, and in the time since those laws were put in place, they’ve been compromised and manipulated through politics,” said Michael Helfrich, the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper based in York, Pa. Riverkeepers are part of a larger national Waterkeeper alliance that fights to keep the country’s waterways clean.
In the past, Pennsylvania’s smaller farms typically have been able to avoid inspection by state and federal regulators because they are not considered Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs. The EPA, however, now is turning its attention to these smaller operations because in counties like Lancaster, Pa., they vastly outnumber large livestock farms. In Lancaster County, about three-quarters of the nutrients gushing into the Susquehanna comes from farms.
In 2009, as part of a comprehensive plan to identify areas that have a significant impact on the Chesapeake, the EPA inspected a watershed community of 24 farms in an area of Lancaster County called Watson Run, which is worked mostly by Plain Sect groups – Amish, Mennonite and Brethren. Given their religious practices and cultural isolation, these farming communities previously had been largely left alone.
The EPA’s McGuigan told News21 that the inspection revealed some disturbing statistics—85 percent of the farms were not in compliance with state regulations.
Many were in violation of a state law stipulating that if a farmer tills more than 5,000 square feet of land, that person must have agricultural erosion, sedimentation and manure management plans. One reason for the high non-compliance rate, said McGuigan, was the lack of visits from state inspectors in the past.
“Neither the Conservation Districts nor the states go out and ask the farmers if they have these plans and whether they are implementing them,” he said. “If they have a complaint, they will go out to the farm, but there is no compliance monitoring strategy.”
McGuigan added that 16 out of 19 farm wells had levels of nitrates above the maximum contamination levels, and over half had pathogen problems.
Lancaster County Conservation District administrator Don McNutt acknowledged that compliance with environmental regulations had largely been voluntary, but he said farmers had nonetheless made a lot of progress in lowering the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous and other pollutants they sent into the bay via the Susquehanna River.
He dismissed the EPA’s findings in Watson Run as being more of a numbers game than an actual reflection of farming practices. “Many of the farms had met Pennsylvania compliance requirements or exceeded it,” he said, but they had just failed to write their plans down.
Conservation practices detailed in those plans are meant to keep sediments and nutrients on the farms, where they do good, and out of the rivers, where they do harm.
Now Conservations Districts in Pennsylvania are scrambling to help farmers fill out the required plans. The District’s mission statement is for every farm to have these plans by 2015. But the farm-rich Lancaster County district, hit with a cut in budgets and a sudden influx of petitions from farmers, is having a hard time meeting its goals. Lancaster County has 5,234 farms, of which only two-thirds have conservation plans.
“We are looking in the range of 300 to 400 farmers that need a new plan or a revised plan,” says McNutt, whose $1.5 million budget just got slashed by 10 percent.
“If we laid it all out, and all the staff had to do was this, it would be three to four years long,” McNutt said. “We can’t do it all.”
Many small farmers see the regulations as costly and the government inspectors as one more stressor for farmers.
“Farmers know what to do,” said Garvin “Butch” Schaffer III, a towering young dairy farmer in central Pennsylvania who has about 70 cows and has struggled with the recent downturn in milk prices.
If abiding by all the regulations on soil erosion, sedimentation, manure placement, and run-off ends up costing too much money, Schaffer said, then farmers just won’t do it.