Most of Tennessee’s factory farms would no longer need state permits that regulate animal waste disposal, under the terms of a bill before the state legislature.
If it passes, only animal farms that actually pollute groundwater or waterways would be subject to oversight.
The debate pits the multibillion-dollar agricultural industry against environmentalists and state water quality regulators. Farmers say the current permit process is too time consuming and expensive, while conservationists and state officials warn of uncontrolled pollution by farmers who don’t follow industry standards.
Manure from “concentrated animal feeding operations” contains chemical and organic compounds that are damaging and expensive to clean from waterways. Nitrogen and phosphorus can create algae blooms that choke off plant and animal life. Pathogens such as E. coli can sicken humans. Commercial waste also contains growth hormones, antibiotics and chemicals used to clean equipment.
The bill would roll back state regulations, which are stricter than those at the federal level. Generally, Tennessee requires medium-sized and large farms — those with 200 or more dairy cows, for instance — to obtain state permits, which govern the storage and disposal of waste. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency, however, requires permits only for facilities that discharge pollution. Under the proposed law, the state would revert to the federal standard.
Facilities with swine, chickens, cattle, horses and other animals also would be affected.
Instead of requiring a permit before construction, the bill would leave regulators the ability to enforce clean water laws on the back end, if they receive a complaint.
“This is meant to make our rural areas more competitive,” said Shawn Hawkins, associate professor at the University of Tennessee Department of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science. “Our rural areas compete with surrounding states that have less stringent rules.”
Water quality regulators work to prevent the storage facilities from leaking or waste overflowing into waterways. They also want to control the spread of manure so it will be absorbed into soil, instead of leaching into groundwater or running off during a rainstorm.
Tisha Calabrese Benton, director of water quality at the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said the bill would hamstring the department’s ability to protect waterways that benefit all Tennesseans. Today, TDEC permits 332 animal feeding operations. Only 15 of them have a permit under the federal Clean Water Act, according to the agency.
“This bill proposes to cut back on our ability to protect those streams and waterways by removing an entire program designed to help prevent discharges of animal waste into waters,” Benton told lawmakers. “The reason this program is in place to begin with is that these operations manage large waste streams that have the potential to impact water quality.”
All other waste generators are required to obtain permits, she said.
A typical scenario is a dairy farmer who flushes animal excrement and stores it in a specially built pond. Periodically, the farmer would drain the pond and use the nutrient-rich waste to fertilize pastures, hay or other crops. Today, the state requires a detailed plan — everything from the construction of the pond to the rate of disbursement, or “spreading,” on fields.
Those highly technical plans can cost as much as $8,000 to $10,000 to produce, plus management time, according to Hawkins from the University of Tennessee.
“That’s fine for a 1,500-head dairy that has someone managing waste full time,” he said. But smaller farms struggle with the expense and time diversion. Also, the state permit process can take up to six months, he said.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration set a goal of streamlining the permitting process in a 2013 plan for rural development. That was part of a broader effort to recruit, expand and increase the profitability of agricultural operations in Tennessee.
Dairy producers worked for more than two and a half years with state officials to craft new permitting guidelines for animal waste, Stan Butt, executive director of the Tennessee Dairy Producers Association, told lawmakers on the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee last week.
“They have been asking TDEC to work with them and come up with maybe a lesser permit, maybe something that is just a little less extreme than what TDEC was requiring for these CAFO operations,” state Sen. Mike Bell, the bill’s co-sponsor, told colleagues at the same hearing.
“Those talks have borne no fruit over the last several years," he said. "My first question is how long is long enough to come up with a plan?”
The bill is co-sponsored by East Tennessee lawmakers Bell, R-Riceville, and Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville.
Environmentalists have threatened to sue farmers who allow pollution from concentrated feeding operations, if changes to the law are passed. Waste that reaches water could impair fishing and paddling sports, and could cause municipalities to pay more for cleanup costs, activists say.
“The Sierra Club recognizes this is an important industry in our state,” said Scott Banbury, conservation program coordinator for the club’s Tennessee chapter. “We just think the industry should be better regulated to protect our water.”
The agriculture sector is the leading contributor to pollution of rivers and streams in Tennessee and throughout the United States, according to state and federal statistics. In the state’s most recent report, 27 miles of waterways were found to be impaired because of pollution from sources that included concentrated animal feeding operations.
Last week the bill passed committees overseeing agriculture in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and is now heading toward a vote of the full chambers, on dates yet to be determined.
Reach Mike Reicher at 615-259-8228 and on Twitter @mreicher. Reach Anita Wadhwani at 615-259-8092 and on Twitter @anitawadhwani