Newspaper article News Sentinel

Bill Would Roll Back Factory Farm Rules

Newspaper article News Sentinel

Bill Would Roll Back Factory Farm Rules

Article excerpt

NASHVILLE - 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.

Farming profits

A typical scenario is a dairy farmer who flushes animal excrement and stores it in a specially built pond. …

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