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Poultry Litter Pollution

The land application of poultry litter causes about 1/8 of Chesapeake Bay nutrient pollution. Half of Bay pollution is of agricultural origin, half of that is caused by the land application of animal waste, half of which is poultry litter. Pollution by nitrogen, phosphorus, bacteria, arsenic and antibiotics are involved, yet the poultry industry has managed, so far, to avoid any meaningful restrictions on its activities. The disposal of poultry waste deserves special consideration.

In Virginia, until very recently, 85% of poultry litter was land-applied with essentially no meaningful regulations or nutrient management plan. No scientific argument can be made that regulations should be any less restrictive than they are for sewage sludge. In fact, regulations should be stiffer, because poultry litter is more phosphorus-rich. In my public comments to the Notice of Intended Regulatory Action (NOIRA0108.pdf) I made this point and also complained that the cost accounting being done by the State did not take into account the economic value of a healthy Chesapeake Bay, stating “The annual value of the Bay to the US economy has been estimated to be as high as $1 Trillion, and it is obvious that, irrespective of whose numbers are accepted, the poultry industry is of trivial economic value to Virginia compared to the value of a healthy Bay.” It has been estimated that each pound of nitrogen pollution costs society between about $0.90 and $2.20 (Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, 2002, v. 27, p. 420-432). Using the more conservative figure, if a farmer saves $56 per acre by using sludge instead of conventional fertilizer, based on data from JLARC report #89 (jlarc.state.va.us), each acre costs society at least $350 because of increased pollution. Poultry litter is no different from sludge in this regard. The real economics are ignored by Virginia and the Economy Protection Agency (EPA) in favor of immediate profits for special interests. Never mind the next generation.

I learned of an egregious case where lack of appropriate laws and lack of enforcement regarding the storage of poultry litter led to pollution of a privately-owned pond and an arm of the Great Wicomico River in Northumberland County by both nitrate and arsenic. In a letter to Gov. Kaine (turkeylitter.pdf) and to EPA, I concluded: “The bottom line is that nearly 40 truck-loads of turkey litter were successfully disposed, remained uncovered for two growing seasons, and continue to pollute a pond and an arm of the Great Wicomico River with nitrate and arsenic.” The State knew about it, but the pile remained until late January 2009, as a monument to Virginia’s priorities, when it was moved. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality analyzed two water samples, on 12/01/08, one trapped behind the berm and the other running downhill toward the pond. Here are the data. Quotes are from the DEQ report to EPA.

Dissolved Oxygen >0.7 mg/l 3.5 mg/l The water quality minimum for instream dissolved oxygen is 4.0 mg/l.
BOD >2417 mg/l 994 mg/l Biological Oxygen Demand is more than 3 times higher than sewage effluent, which is typically below 300.
Total Nitrogen 1100 mg/l 564 mg/l Typical instream values are less than 2 mg/l. These numbers are astronomical!
Ammonia 324 mg/l 166 mg/l Typical instream values are less than 0.5 mg/l, and these extreme levels will “cause acute toxicity to fishes and aquatic insects.”
Phosphorus 77.4 mg/l 48.6 mg/l Values are more than 240 times higher than typical instream concentrations and “would greatly accelerate plant growth downstream,” as has happened.
E. coli >8000 cfu/100ml >8000 cfu/100ml “The actual level of bacteria was off scale and of unknown high magnitude.”
Arsenic 167 ppb 50 ppb is the groundwater limit.

I submitted public comments regarding Virginia Pollution Abatement (VPA) Permit Regulation for Poultry Waste Management on 08/19/09, stating that the proposed regulations are not based on science, are incomplete, and do not achieve the goal of protecting water quality, as claimed (Comments.pdf). In a cover letter to Governor Kaine, I advised that if the regulations are promulgated as written, he can never honestly claim that his administration is concerned about water quality in Chesapeake Bay, but focuses instead on protecting the profits of the poultry industry. Just as the Technical Advisory Committees regarding sewage sludge are stacked by the State in favor of special interests, this committee was stacked 11 to 4 with special interests who favored little or no regulation on the disposal of the waste by land application, and included 8 government representatives, two of which were from agriculture-related offices such as VDACS and SWCD.

As an example of DEQ’s position, several people complained about the option to apply 1.5 tons of litter per acre every three years, disposing of about 75 pounds of phosphorus. No restrictions are imposed on chemical fertilizer application in the two years following poultry litter disposal. Please recall the quotes cited previously, especially the quote by A. N. Sharpley (Ed., Agriculture and Phosphorus Management: The Chesapeake Bay, 1999, CRC Press, p. 66.) “… much of the crop land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is now considered “optimum” or “excessive” in phosphorus from an agricultural perspective and hence needs little additional phosphorus, from any source, to ensure that economically optimum crop yields are attained.” Here is DEQ’s response:

“The proposed regulation states that in order to utilize the option of applying 1.5 tons of poultry waste per acre once every three (3) years without requiring a soil test, nutrients may not have been supplied by an organic source of fertilizer during the three (3) years preceding the application. It is not probable that a field that has received only commercially blended fertilizer will have extremely high soil test phosphorus levels, and the phosphorus in the 1.5 ton application rate will be utilized by a three (3) year crop rotation.”

Note the phrase “… It is not probable …” In fact, it is very probable that soil phosphorus levels are high, and the only certain way to know is obviously through a soil test. But a soil test could restrict land application and have a negative impact on the profits of special interests, while improving water quality. The bottom line is that the proposed changes in regulating the land application of poultry litter are a “baby step” that will cause no meaningful reduction in water pollution by nutrients, bacteria or arsenic, and are yet another give-away to special interests.

Sec. of Natural Resources L. Preston Bryant, Jr. (with degrees in the humanities and modern British literature) responded (Bryant09041.pdf) to my objection to the new regulations, disagreeing with me that “… the proposed regulations are not protective of water quality and that the amendments are particularly one-sided.” The only regulation that ensures there will be no negative impact on crop productivity and protects water quality is one that requires soil analysis and limits nutrient application to the amounts needed by the crop. No scientific reason exists to do otherwise, and anything else is just a license to dispose of animal waste as cheaply as possible. Nutrient Management Plans sound good, but as long as they have options for nitrogen-based land application, as is true of the new poultry regulations, phosphorus is still being over-applied to the detriment of water quality and the benefit of special interests. On 10/21/09, DEQ summarized, in 36 pages, the comments received and their responses. Poultry interests complained that the proposed regulatory changes are too restrictive and that existing regulations should be relaxed. A few people, like myself, advocated that the land application of poultry litter should be regulated no less leniently than is true of sewage sludge with regard to nutrients, bacteria and arsenic. Most comments (which I would characterize as “light green”) applauded the slightly more restrictive regulations.