published Monday, August 22nd, 2011

Georgia hit for farm waste in water

By Chris Joyner, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
  • photo
    Keith Boozer has operated a 75,000-hen poultry farm in Monroe, Ga., for 20 years and is proud of his record in complying with state and federal environmental rules. Photo by the Atlanta Journal Constitution

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A report blasting Georgia's environmental oversight of large livestock farms has raised concerns about potential contamination of Georgia waterways with chemicals from manure.

For years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been signing off on Georgia's inspection of farms with large numbers of cows, pigs or chickens. The farms generate huge amounts of manure that can pollute nearby streams and lakes with levels of nitrogen and phosphorus dangerous to fish and humans alike.

The report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Inspector General found nearly three-fourths of state inspections of 48 large farms known as "concentrated animal feeding operations" were faulty or incomplete.

Poor oversight by the state Environmental Protection Division and Georgia Department of Agriculture has left the "significant risk that Georgia's CAFO program is failing to protect water quality," the report concluded.

Most of these operations store manure in liquid form in lagoons or spray it on fields as fertilizer, and without careful management the waste can end up polluting Georgia's rivers and reservoirs. In the 1990s, studies traced contaminated ground water in North Carolina to lagoons created by huge hog farms and the state became an example for tougher regulation.

April Ingle, executive director of the environmental group Georgia River Network, said she was taken aback by the report.

"It is surprising and unfortunate that Georgia is not doing everything it can to address these pollution problems," she said.

State and federal regulators said they still are reviewing the report, which was released in June, and have asked for additional information on the investigation. The report does not specify which farms were given inadequate inspections.

"We still have not been provided with adequate documentation from the inspector general's office for us to draw our own conclusions at this point," said Dominic Weatherill, industrial compliance manager for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. "We can't say that we are completely on board with all of its conclusions."

EPA officials in Atlanta charged with oversight of the state regulators say they agree with the general findings of the report. But Chris Plymale, EPA chief of storm water enforcement for the southeast, said he does not believe these large farms are polluters.

"We really have no evidence from any surface water sampling that we can directly track back to any CAFO," he said.

But the only evidence EPA has that those operations are not polluting comes from the state inspection reports the inspector general's office deemed faulty.

Agriculture Department spokesman Arty Schronce admitted in an email to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that important plans to dispose of the manure on these large farms were not vetted by agriculture inspectors because of poor communication between them and EPD. That is being corrected now, he said.

Kurt Ebserbach, an attorney with Atlanta-based environmental law firm Greenlaw, said the inspector general's report casts serious doubt on the state's inspection program.

"How are you going to know whether there are a problem if you haven't been monitoring the situation?" he said.

Plymale said testing shows pollution from agricultural sources, including animal manure, in Georgia's rivers and lakes. Manure is high in nitrogen and phosphorous, chemicals derived from the food the livestock consume. In the right doses, manure makes a good fertilizer, but use too much and the excess chemicals can leach into ground and surface water.

Keith Boozer, who operates a 75,000-hen poultry farm in Monroe, Ga., said the most recent inspection of his operation was "very complete, very detailed." At the same time, he said the inspectors from the Department of Agriculture are not playing a game of "gotcha."

"They are more than willing to work with you. The inspectors that come out ask questions, they talk to you," he said.

Boozer has operated his chicken farm for 20 years and maintains a lagoon on site to handle the manure. He said he is careful that it does not contaminate nearby water.

"I live on the land. I don't have public water. I have well water that I drink and my family drinks," he said. "Every six months I have to complete tests and I had monitoring wells, that are tested, ground water, soil samples. ... I don't know how much more complete you have to be."

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