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The disposal or animal waste by land application is the single most polluting practice and the most easily and cheaply addressed problem in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This uncontested fact, admitted by EPA, has been summarized in numerous letters and in several articles published in the Bay Journal (Lynton Land is listed under “author archives” at the bottom of the “Back Issues” page at www.bayjournal.org1234). In 2012 I summarized the case for phasing in Phosphorus-based land application of animal waste prior to an ultimate ban in the Marine Pollution Bulletin (Land, L.S. Chesapeake Bay nutrient pollution: Contribution from the land application of sewage sludge in Virginia. Mar. Pollut. Bull. (2012). link) Here is a simple summary:

How much nitrogen (N) is land-applied in animal waste annually in Virginia, but not used by crops? The tons (converted to pounds) land-applied in 2003 were supplied to me by VDH, DCR and DEQ. The fraction N in the animal waste and the fraction of the N not used by crops are from DCR’s “2005 Nutrient Management Standards” on which Nutrient Management Plans are based:

Pounds applied x fraction N x fraction N not used = pounds N pollution
Sewage sludge 494,648,000 x 0.02 x 0.45 = 4,452,000
Poultry litter 1,115,268,000 x 0.03 x 0.40 = 13,383,000
Cattle, swine 468,509,000 x 0.03 x 0.60 = 8,433,000

26 million pounds of N were land-applied in 2003 in Virginia but not used by crops. If the nitrogen is not removed from the field with the crop, it is released to the environment, and except for small amounts of denitrification in oxidized soils, it constitutes pollution. To put 26 million pounds of N pollution from the land application of animal waste in perspective, the Virginia Tributary Strategies claim that Virginia rivers supply 78 million pounds of N to Chesapeake Bay annually, 26 million pounds of it from point sources, mostly wastewater treatment plants. The 2010 Cap Load Allocation for N (which has not been achieved, like all previous “goals”) is 51 million pounds. The goal of reducing 78 million pounds of N discharge to 51 million pounds annually could be achieved (78 – 51 = 27) by simply eliminating the land-application of animal waste. Nitrogen pollution from the land-application of animal waste is of the same magnitude of the discharge of nitrogen from wastewater treatment facilities, each accounting for about one-quarter of Chesapeake Bay nutrient pollution.

It has long been claimed that the easiest source of pollution to address is the point source pollution from wastewater facilities. That claim is incorrect. Banning the land application of animal waste could be done with the stroke of a pen, and would be much less costly than upgrading wastewater facilities, which should have been done decades ago and must be done immediately. Poultry litter is the most common kind of animal waste being disposed by land application, and a single company, Perdue Farms Inc., is the source of most of that pollution. Banning the land application of animal waste will be feverishly resisted because of the economic consequences for a very few special interests. Sadly, most people probably prefer cheap poultry to improved water quality in Chesapeake Bay. Again, sadly, there will be little immediate effect of such a ban because it will take considerable time for the nitrate concentrations in groundwater to fall back toward “natural” levels, especially in the absence of mandated riparian buffers. The massive amount of phosphorus already disposed on the land will take many decades to dissipate. But the longer land application continues, and the longer it takes for other agricultural Best Management Practices to be mandated, like meaningful riparian buffers, split fertilizer application, unfertilized winter cover crops and especially the development and use of timed-release fertilizers, the longer it will take to significantly improve water quality in Chesapeake Bay.

Urban infrastructure must be upgraded to immediately reduce the nutrients released from both wastewater treatment plants and storm water runoff, especially from Combined Sewage Overflow. Upgrades to wastewater treatment facilities should include waste-to-energy technology to eliminate the sludge and put it to better use. These upgrades should be mandated now, watershed-wide. Construction will create jobs, needed now, and the funding can come from municipal bonds that constitute safe investments and ensure that “the polluter pays.” People who look upon such a mandate as a tax must understand that taxes are often necessary. Nobody would advocate that we discharge our wastes directly into the water in order to avoid spending money on building new or expanding old wastewater plants. It’s a small step to understand that current discharge practices cause unacceptable pollution, and the most equitable way to pay for improvements is to spread the cost as widely and equitably as possible among the polluters.

Water quality in Chesapeake Bay has not improved because the public has not demanded it and doesn’t want to pay for it, and especially because special interests dominate the political process to their selfish economic benefit. Most people are more concerned with buying a (bigger) house, car, boat, vacation, etc. and purchasing the cheapest possible item now, than they are in investing in the welfare of future generations. The expanding human population, greed and the false economic dogma that growth now is both good and necessary, all fuel the “race to the bottom.” Cost savings realized today, and the debt incurred, will be more than offset by costs to future generations. When our current capitalist society fails, as it will, historians will confirm that there was nothing wrong with capitalism except for greedy, morally corrupt, irresponsible capitalists, politicians unwilling to impose regulations that would impact their sources of funding and complacent citizens focused on their immediate well-being. Too many people lack substantive enlightenment (education), energetic sustained concern (many do not vote) and are selfishly short-sighted. Until large numbers of people begin to give a damn about the next generation(s) and actually do something to institute change, our government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” will continue to be dominated by the “profit now” philosophy of the greedy capitalists and complicit politicians. The rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. We get the government we deserve.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a foundation of all major religions. It might be usefully reworded to “Do unto your grandchildren as you wish your fore-bearers had done unto you.” Until large numbers of people demand that water quality in Chesapeake Bay be improved, vote accordingly, and agree to change their behavior and pay for the changes that are necessary, the Bay will continue to stagnate.