Joint Subcommittee Studying Industrial Swine Production
October 29, 1997, Richmond
The joint subcommittee's second meeting focused on the Virginia pollution abatement general permit for confined animal feeding operations. The subcommittee also received a briefing on Pfiesteria and identified issues for further study.
The general permit is issued by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to operations with 750 or more swine (or an equivalent number of other livestock). To be eligible for the general permit, an operation must have and implement a nutrient management plan that has been approved by the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). The subcommittee examined in detail the program implementation activities of the two agencies.
The nutrient management plan may be written by DCR nutrient management specialists or by others. Most nutrient management plans for new or expanding swine operations are written by private sector employees. Plans written by DCR staff are reviewed by the nutrient management program manager, while plans written by those outside the agency are reviewed by an agency nutrient management specialist and the program manager. The agency operates a nutrient management training and certification program. To date, those certified under the program include 40 government employees, 14 employees of sludge contractors, 56 workers in the fertilizer industry, and 10 in other private sector positions. DCR nutrient management specialists are required to have a degree in agronomy, agricultural engineering, dairy science, or related area, or an equivalent combination of training and experience, and must be a certified nutrient management planner. Over the past year general permit nutrient management plan submittals, as well as inquiries from citizens and local government, have increased.
Nutrient management plans are revised at least once every three years, and must be updated prior to expiration if the number or type of animals raised by the operation changes. For DCR-written plans, staff often visits the farm when the plan is revised and may visit the farm at other times to assist with manure sampling, manure spreader calibrations and other activities. Agency nutrient management specialists try to assist farmers with compliance during such visits, rather than reporting noncompliance to DEQ.
DEQ is required to inspect permitted operations at least once every five years. Inspections are usually unannounced. During inspections, farmers are asked questions based on an inspection form developed by the regional office. Monitoring results and records of waste applications, which are required to be kept for two years, are inspected. The condition and storage capacity of the lagoon is inspected. If the lagoon has an underground leak, it may be detected by groundwater monitoring data, if the operation is required to monitor groundwater. Most inspectors have college degrees and experience in wastewater laboratories, wastewater treatment plants, or both. They are encouraged to take the nutrient management and training course offered by DCR. Day-to-day interaction between DCR staff and DEQ inspection staff is infrequent. On a very limited number of occasions, DCR staff have accompanied DEQ staff on inspection visits.
With regard to lagoons, the general permit requires that the nutrient management plan contain "storage and land area requirements." The only aspect of lagoon design and maintenance covered by most nutrient management plans, therefore, is lagoon volume. The permit itself contains requirements regarding the lagoon liner, the level of waste that must be maintained in any lagoon constructed below the water table, the storage capacity of the lagoon, and prevention from inundation during a 100-year flood. Most farmers have their lagoons constructed in accordance with the design manual produced by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Lagoons are not inspected prior to use, although proper installation of the liner must be certified by "a liner manufacturer, a professional engineer, an employee of the Soil Conservation Service of the United States Department of Agriculture with appropriate engineering approval authority, an employee of a soil and water conservation district with appropriate engineering approval authority, or other qualified individual."
The chairman of the Commonwealth's interagency task force on Pfiesteria spoke to the subcommittee about Virginia's response to last summer's outbreaks and the current state of scientific knowledge regarding the relationship between agriculture, nutrient pollution and Pfiesteria outbreaks. The five main agencies involved in responding to Pfiesteria are (i) the Virginia Department of Health, which is the lead agency for providing human health advisories and compiling press releases; (ii) DEQ, which has the lead in field responses to fish kills and collecting water and sediment samples; (iii) the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, which is in charge of pathology work on fish lesions and trawl surveys in which fish lesions are recorded and quantified; (iv) Old Dominion University, which conducts initial screenings of water samples suspected of containing Pfiesteria and forwarding appropriate samples to laboratories equipped to identify Pfiesteria; and (v) the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC), which coordinates the task force. VMRC has made presentations on Pfiesteria to the House Appropriations Committee, the House Committee on the Chesapeake and Its Tributaries, the State Water Commission, and the Virginia congressional delegation.
There are actually several species of microscopic organisms that are similar to Pfiesteria piscicida, which is the organism that has been linked to massive fish kills in North Carolina. Research is being conducted to determine which of these organisms may have been present in the Maryland and Virginia waters in which fish kills occurred last summer and whether their toxic effects are the same as those that can be caused by Pfiesteria piscicida. Research is also ongoing on the issue of environmental influences on fish kills caused by such organisms. It is suspected that outbreaks are more likely to occur in waters with poor flushing and high levels of nutrient enrichment. According to a leading expert on the issue, 75 percent of outbreaks have occurred in nutrient over-enriched waters, and the remainder were associated with aquaculture facilities.
The subcommittee's third meeting, scheduled for December 8th in House Room C of the General Assembly Building in Richmond, will focus on alternative waste management technologies. The subcommittee will also discuss legislative changes to the general permit law. The study is planned to continue for another year, during which time the subcommittee will be comparing both the state's regulatory program and the Right to Farm Act with the laws of other states.
The Honorable Mitchell Van Yahres, Chairman
Legislative Services contact: Nicole R. Beyer