As an academician, I had never involved myself in correspondence with elected and appointed State and Federal Officials until retirement. I had the extremely naive view that if something is scientifically clear, then the necessary actions are also clear and a responsible government will take the necessary actions. My cloistered academic focus meant that I ignored the “real world” behavior of the body politic. I was (selfishly) too busy doing science. Retirement has changed my perspective.
The headwaters of all tidal waterways in Northumberland County (indeed, in almost all of tidewater Virginia) are restricted for the harvesting of shellfish (oysters, clams, mussels and scallops, but not finfish or crustaceans) because of pollution by fecal coliform bacteria. I reasoned that the land-application of Class B sewage sludge would guarantee that gulls foraging in the fields would transport pathogens to nearby waterways. A typical land-application of two 20-ton truck-loads of sludge per acre disposes of billions of pathogens. Restricting the land-application of sewage sludge close to the water would remove an obvious source of contamination. My complaints were brushed off by the same agency (VA Department of Health, or VDH) then responsible for both the land-application of sewage sludge and imposing restrictions on the harvesting of shellfish. I still believe that disposing of bacteria-rich animal waste in watersheds formally impaired because of high fecal coliform concentrations is stupid, and I continue to raise this issue with the VA Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), now the State agency responsible for land application, as they pretend to actually address the formal impairment of waterways because of bacterial contamination. The bacterial pollution page summarizes this issue.
It is obvious that the land-application of phosphorus-rich animal waste to soils already containing enough phosphorus to support crop growth only guarantees pollution. Vastly more nitrogen is being disposed on fields in animal waste than crops actually use. Yet the highly polluting practice of land applying animal waste continues because State and Federal officials believe, but will not publicly articulate, that “free fertilizer” for farmers is more important than improved water quality. Chesapeake Bay does not make campaign contributions. I participated in a Technical Advisory Committee to reduce nutrient pollution, especially phosphorus pollution. The experience was an eye-opener as to how the government achieves its economic objectives and at the same time appears to involve the public and protect the environment. Because poultry litter disposal accounts for 1/8 of Chesapeake Bay nutrient pollution, and large firms such as Perdue and Tyson are the largest corporate polluters of Chesapeake Bay, Poultry litter deserves special consideration.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation urges members to write to EPA’s new administrator, Lisa Jackson, asking her to take action that will improve water quality in the Bay. Hopefully, the Obama administration’s newly appointed head of the EPA will actually start protecting the Environment and not just the Economy. My letter of 03/03/09 (Jackson.pdf) emphasized that “Agricultural fertilization inefficiency is the primary cause of nutrient pollution of Chesapeake Bay, and animal waste is the least efficient fertilizer used.”
A reply was received 03/25/09 from Jeffrey Lape, Director of the Region III Chesapeake Bay Program Office (Lape.pdf.) Mr. Lape admits “We estimate that agricultural animal manure and poultry litter [he omits municipal sewage sludge] contribute about half of the agricultural nutrient load to the Chesapeake Bay.” Because agricultural practices contribute at least half of anthropogenic Bay pollution, a ban on land application would eliminate at least 25% of all the nutrient pollution of the Bay. But rather than concluding that the nutrient load from disposal of animal waste on fields should be eliminated, Mr. Lape asserts “Agriculture is a defining feature of our region’s economy and heritage.” Don’t watermen define the region’s heritage more than agriculture, which is similar everywhere in the country? Watermen’s heritage is at risk of becoming extinct because of abysmal water quality, not farmers’. Mr. Lape also asserts “Reducing or eliminating the use of manure on agricultural lands would take a cultural change by the farmer.” My emphasis. No more than 5% of agricultural land in Virginia receives animal waste, so the farmer really means a very small minority of farmers. Is it the mandate of EPA to induce cultural changes in a few people, or to improve water quality in Chesapeake Bay for everybody? What would it cost to ban the land application of animal waste with the stroke of a pen, and instantly reduce Bay nutrient pollution by 25%? No tax dollars are needed. A very few farmers would be required to change their fertilization practices and behave like the other 95% of farmers, who are obviously profitable. For those citizens connected to wastewater facilities, rates would rise, but no more than the cost of a few bags of junk food each year, even if the waste had to be landfilled. Meat would become slightly more expensive, at least until the meat producers recognized the value of the waste as biofuel.
There is no evidence that Mr. Lape’s letter was copied to my elected officials, who received the original letter. There is also no evidence that Ms. Jackson read the letter. Did the letter just pass down through the existing entrenched EPA bureaucratic chain without being read or the reply approved by newly appointed superiors?
There is no doubt that eliminating the land application of animal waste is the cheapest way to significantly reduce Chesapeake Bay nutrient pollution. A ban is incredibly cheap, compared to upgrading wastewater treatment plants or managing urban stormwater runoff, both of which also need to be done. There is also no doubt that the land application of animal waste creates other worrisome problems, like the dissemination of antibiotics that promote the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But given all the reasons to ban land application, EPA continues to ignore the huge economic value of Chesapeake Bay to society in favor of maximizing farm profits for a few. Nutrient pollution from the dominant polluters, namely farmers, must be reduced or water quality will not improve. Banning the land application of animal waste unquestionably provides the “biggest bang for the buck” by improving net agricultural fertilization efficiency. A ban also distributes the unavoidable cost of nutrient reduction about as equitably as possible. And waste-to-energy technology can reduce our reliance on imported oil.
I never cease to be amazed at the garbage, ranging from meaningless verbiage to undocumented fantasies and outright false statements, that official responses provide. Many of my letters were copied to other elected/appointed officials. Few responses were ever received, and almost none were substantive. When elected/appointed officials change, it’s back to square one, as is so elegantly emphasized in the British sitcom “Yes, Minister.” Newly elected officials often leave incompetent senior appointees in place, out of convenience or because the appointee reflects the official’s (or the official’s supporters’) view. Senior appointees rarely “clean house” and so incompetence, turf battles and self-interest guarantee that the “Peter Principle” prevails. One lesson I have learned is “Don’t waste time on the peons.“ If you take the time to write substantive letters, sent them to the top and copy them to all your elected officials. Letters are more likely to elicit a reasoned response (likely, not guaranteed) than emails. Peons have mortgages too and are masters of deflective verbiage, so there is no guarantee that concerns raised with peons will rise any further up the food chain. And remember Bernie Fowler’s motto (cited from his entry in Howard Ernst’s latest book, Fight for the Bay) “Never give up, never, never, never give up!”