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EPA denies Ohio's request of manure discharge oversight

Tagged cows in pens on an Ohio factory farm.
Alejandro Figueroa
/
WYSO
Ohio has over 200 factory farms.

The state of Ohio has tried to transfer which government agency oversees that disposal of factory farm manure for more than 20 years. The federal government has finally said no after decades of back and forth.

Ohio has over 200 Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFO’s, otherwise known as factory farms.

Those factory farms typically keep thousands of hogs and cattle in confined areas, which produce tons of manure. At one point, a report found factory farms in Ohio produced over 10 million tons of manure per year.

If these operations want to get rid of all that manure, they must apply for a permit called the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System through the Ohio EPA.

Steve Jann, who oversees water permits through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the permit basically regulates and puts a cap on the amount of pollution any manufacturer, such as a factory farm, can discharge.

“The essence of the program is to require a person who discharges pollutants into waters of the United States to set limitations on the quantity, the frequency and quality of discharges into surface water.”

If manure discharge isn’t handled properly, it can lead to harmful nutrient runoff like nitrogen and phosphorus, which can kill aquatic life and cause toxic algae blooms like the ones on Lake Erie.

Back in 2000, then Ohio Governor Bob Taft signed into law a bill allowing the Ohio Department of Agriculture to regulate most factory farm operations.

The law allowed factory farms to be constructed and operated through a permitting process approved by the department of agriculture. Those permits, however, prohibit factory farms from discharging manure.

Instead, the manure is stored on site in a "manure lagoon." It can also be hauled and applied as a nutrient to crop fields, which does not require an NPDES permit, according to Shelby Croft, a spokesperson for the state department of agriculture.

The law also requested the federal government transfer those manure regulation permits from the Ohio EPA to the state department of agriculture.

In a statement, Croft said the agriculture department's transfer request was intended to streamline the permitting process and prevent duplicative efforts by ODA and Ohio EPA.

The U.S. EPA recently denied that request. That’s because the federal agency highlighted 81 provisions the state needs to address first in letters it sent to the department of agriculture in 2019 and 2020.

The U.S. EPA also highlighted it didn’t receive formal responses from the agriculture department explaining if or how it made those changes.

“ODA is currently reviewing the letter from the U.S. EPA and is in the process of determining next steps. ODA disagrees with certain characterizations in the letter and will be responding to the U.S. EPA in writing.” Croft said.

Tarah Heinzen, with the nonprofit Food and Water Watch, said these types of transfer requests are problematic because state agencies’ mission is to promote agribusiness.

“We know that agriculture departments lack the technical skills and expertise to run a clean water permitting program. They do not have the experience as regulators and enforcers of technical discharge permits that environmental agencies do.” Heinzen said.

She adds the U.S. EPA needs to do more to regulate factory farms, especially those approved by the state department of agricultures. That’s because it’s still hard to regulate the industry.

“The federal EPA has really set up a catch me if you can system where if a CAFO says that they don't discharge, you have to go out and basically prove that that's not correct,” Heinzen said. “So it's difficult for regulators, but it's even harder for citizens to go out and demonstrate that a CAFO is discharging into waterways.”

For now, not much changes from the permitting process. The disapproval of the NPDES transfer request has no effect on Ohio’s permitting program or on Ohio EPA’s current NPDES permitting process, according to Croft.

The federal agency did leave the door open for Ohio to apply for the transfer again if it addresses the provisions it’s asking the state agency to change.

Alejandro Figueroa is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. 
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Alejandro Figueroa