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Uncle Sam's Next Environmental Target: Farms

New federal rules cite animal waste as major threat to America's waterways.

On his way to market, this little piggy can make a big mess. So can the millions of cows and chickens that produce tons of waste before ending up on dinner plates around the country.

As a result, Uncle Sam is about to crack down on the farm industry.

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"Animal waste is a national problem that demands a national solution," says Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, senior Democrat on the Senate agriculture committee.

Senator Harkin and US Rep. George Miller (D) of California are sponsoring legislation that would set strict limits on animal-waste pollution. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) this week will announce new regulations designed to clean up farmyards.

In all, farm animals raised to become meat account for 61 million tons of waste a year, according to the USDA. This is many times the amount of human waste produced annually in the United States. In the Yakima Valley of Washington State, for example, there are now nearly 100,000 dairy cows and heifers, which produce as much waste as a city of 2.5 million people.

Rebecca Wodders, president of the conservation group American Rivers, calls factory farms "a growing national blight."

"In the past two decades, we have made significant progress in cleaning up waterways and putting a stop to major industrial sources of pollution," says Ms. Wodders. "Now we are faced with a threat so pervasive it could send us back to the days when rivers, in many cases, were nothing more than cesspools."

The conservation group's annual list of 10 most endangered rivers this year includes three waterways threatened by cattle, poultry, and hog farms: the Pocomoke River in Maryland, the Apple River in Wisconsin and Illinois, and the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., and three surrounding states.

The problem is that, whereas urban sewer systems now treat most human waste to the point where it is environmentally benign, waste from farms is not treated. Typically, such waste is either stored on the factory farms that are replacing family operations (and thereby concentrating the problem) or spread on fields as fertilizer to help produce grain to feed livestock in a kind of mass recycling effort. In either case, it also is fouling waterways and killing wildlife.

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Major pollution source

Earlier this summer, the Ecological Society of America, a scientific research and education organization in Washington, named livestock operations as one of the major causes of "nonpoint-source pollution," or pollution spread over large areas rather than coming from a single sewage pipe or smokestack.

Among the problems caused by farm-animal waste is the spread of phosphorus and nitrogen, too much of which can throw an ecosystem out of balance through a biological process called "eutrophication."

"This occurs when the excess nutrients in the runoff ... cause a burst of algal and bacterial growth that leads to a loss of much of the dissolved oxygen, which, in effect, suffocates other aquatic life," the Ecological Society of America reported. "This can lead to fish and marine mammal kills, the loss of coral reefs, shellfish, poisoning in humans, and outbreaks of Pfiesteria, the toxic microbe that has plagued mid-Atlantic waterways."

Wide impact

Only about one-fourth of all animal feedlots are regulated by states. As a result, according to EPA officials who testified before Congress in May, about 35,000 river miles in the US are adversely impacted. Livestock wastes flowing into the Chesapeake Bay have been linked to human illness and large fish kills.

While most of the concern centers on large feedlots and poultry operations in the Midwest, the East, and the South, the problem exists across the country. Here in the Rogue Valley of southern Oregon, residents this week were warned that local streams were contaminated because of a number of causes, including livestock wastes.

Under the new EPA regulations, the nation's largest farms (those with at least 1,000 head of cattle, 2,500 hogs, or 100,000 chickens) will have five years to develop waste-management plans and obtain permits to operate. Smaller farm operations will be encouraged to comply voluntarily.

As is often the case with environmental rules, not everyone is happy with the specifics. Environmental activists worry that giving farmers several years to comply will allow the problem to get worse as the farm industry continues to become concentrated in larger operations. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, on the other hand, welcomes a national standard. But the organization accuses the EPA of relying on "faulty data" in reaching its conclusions about the scope of the problem.

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