Animal production has grown steadily since the 1980s, but there is not enough cropland to safely land-apply all of the manure
Washington, D.C. – Farmers in four south central Pennsylvania counties contribute disproportionately to pollution in the Chesapeake Bay by spreading over four times more nitrogen and phosphorus in manure per acre than farmers in the rest of the state, according to a new report.
The Environmental Integrity Project report, “Unsustainable Agriculture: Pennsylvania’s Manure Hot Spots,” uses EPA data to examine farms in Lancaster, Lebanon, Franklin and Union counties, which together produce almost half of the state’s livestock and the majority of its poultry.
Since the mid-1980s, while the amount of available cropland has declined, animal production has increased significantly. For example, hog production in these counties has nearly doubled, increasing the amount of hog manure generated from roughly 700,000 tons per year to 1.4 million tons per year. Broiler litter has increased 75 percent, to over 113,000 tons per year. Manure from dairy and beef cows has risen 16 percent, from 3.3 to 3.9 million tons annually.
“Much of this manure is routinely over-applied to cropland, sometimes as a method of waste disposal, adding far more nitrogen and phosphorus than crops can use,” said Abel Russ, author of the report and attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project. “Farmers usually apply the manure to maximize crop yield, but without adequate efforts to prevent runoff pollution – and that damages both local streams and the Chesapeake Bay.”
Under a system of pollution limits known as the bay “Total Maximum Daily Load,” Pennsylvania is 36 percent (or 16 million pounds) short of its 2017 target for reducing agricultural nitrogen pollution in the bay – far more than any other state, according to the EIP report.
The commonwealth is also 15 percent over its 2017 target for phosphorus runoff pollution from farms, making it the only state that is not meeting its agricultural phosphorus reduction goal.
Part of the problem is that manure management regulations are extremely lax, and allow routine over-application of manure nutrients. In addition, enforcement of manure regulations in Pennsylvania is rare, and undermined by severe budget cuts at the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which has seen its funding slashed by about 40 percent over the last 15 years.
As of January 2016, DEP estimated that only 30 percent of farms in the bay watershed had manure management or erosion control plans required by law more than three decades ago. The situation may be improving, with a survey released by the state in August 2017 finding that about 60 percent of farms had these plans. There is still much room for improvement however, and the recent inspections did not evaluate compliance with these plans.
In the four counties examined by EIP:
- The per-acre application of manure nitrogen on farmland has increased by 40 percent since 1984. Applications in the rest of the commonwealth have also increased, but only by 9 percent.
- The per-acre application of manure phosphorus has increased by 27 percent since 1984, twice as fast as the rest of Pennsylvania.
- The four counties we analyzed apply 4-5 times more manure nitrogen and manure phosphorus than the rest of the state, per acre of farmland.
- For every farm acre in these four counties, there are twice as many turkeys, three times as many dairy cows, and roughly six times as many chickens as there are elsewhere in the commonwealth. Along with the increasing density of animals comes more manure.
The result has been pollution in streams and rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay. Within the four counties examined, 24 percent of stream miles are impaired by agriculture, with too much nitrogen, phosphorus, bacteria, and/or siltation.
In Lancaster County alone, 40 percent of stream miles are impaired by agricultural runoff pollution, including 106 miles impaired by pathogens and 562 miles by nitrogen and phosphorus, according to the EIP report.
To address the problem, the report concludes that Pennsylvania should eventually find a way to cap animal production at a more reasonable level, or at least more aggressively export manure out of the animal-dense counties. In the meantime, Pennsylvania should require:
- All farms that land-apply manure, particularly in areas that have intensive animal production, to have and follow written pollution control strategies called Nutrient Management Plans.
- Universal implementation of a field evaluation tool called the Phosphorus Index, which works to reduce phosphorus runoff by identifying areas that are likely to discharge phosphorus to surface water.
- The prohibition or restriction of winter spreading of manure, as other Chesapeake region states have done.
- The implementation of advanced nutrient management practices such as the immediate incorporation of manure into soil and regular use of manure tests and soil tests.
“Pennsylvania needs to invest significantly more in controlling this agricultural runoff, first and foremost to protect streams and drinking water supplies for local families,” Russ said. “And downstream, such cleanup efforts by Pennsylvania are critical to the success of the whole Chesapeake Bay restoration effort.”
Media Contact: Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project (202) 888-2703 or firstname.lastname@example.org