“I think I can say this for the other people, when we first heard about this, that EPA was coming, we weren’t sure what was going to happen,” said Jacob Beiler, reflecting on the 2009 visits to Lancaster County, Pa., by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Beiler, a dairy farmer with 87 head of cattle on 46 acres, was one of 24 farmers in Watson Run who were paid a visit by EPA inspectors.
The result was that he had to get a written conservation plan, new spouting for his barns and a new waterway diversion in one of his fields. He’s still constructing a new cow lane in his animal concentration area, which he hopes to complete later this spring.
While the mention of EPA still makes some of his neighbors bristle, Beiler thinks it’s made farmers in his close-knit community more aware of not only their environmental impact, but also their standing in the overall community.
“There is still some opposition. I know there is. You meet some farmer now and then, and they aren’t so happy about it. You wonder what the future is going to be like, is the noose on the neck going to be pulled even tighter,” Beiler said.
“But I do think that the more things the farmers can do voluntarily in the future is going to be a big help,” he said. “If the EPA and conservation district see we want to help instead of doing the things we have to do, I think that will be a big help in the future.”
No doubt, there is still a sense of uneasiness about EPA’s role in regulating farm operations as a result of the total maximum daily load, or TMDL, that was established for the Chesapeake Bay watershed in late 2010, especially in Lancaster County.
But some think it’s resulted in a more cooperative environment between local, federal and state officials as the spotlight has shifted somewhat from Lancaster to other areas of the state.
Don McNutt, administrator of the Lancaster County Conservation District, thinks the Watson Run inspections marked a turning point for EPA and their planned additional inspections in the county.
He said the agency planned to visit hundreds of farms in up to eight different watersheds in the county, mainly to see if farmers had the conservation and manure management plans required of them, and to see what sort of best management practices were on the ground.
The initial approach, he said, was heavy-handed, with the fall 2009 Watson Run inspections largely unannounced.
“The feds initially said some small farms would come under CAFO regs. That scared me, because these are small family farms with 40 to 50 cows. That’s very costly to the producer. I think it really threatened the viability of them staying in business,” he said.
McNutt said that at the behest of its board, the conservation district became the buffer between environmental regulators and farmers.
“I felt like we could get the best of bringing the farmers along and meeting some of the goals they had with the Chesapeake Bay model,” he said.
EPA found that 85 percent of the farms in Watson Run didn’t have conservation or manure management plans, and were lacking controls to keep pollution out of the local waterway.
But he said follow-up inspections surprised regulators, in that most farmers had gotten the plans they needed and put in practices to control pollution.
“There were less environmental concerns than expected. They were surprised how good the fields were,” he said. “There were a few farms that definitely needed assistance with barnyard issues, which is typical for those small-sized, 200-year-old farms. The good news story was EPA saw that there wasn’t as much to focus on here as originally thought.”
Jon Capacasa, director of the water protection division at EPA’s Region 3 office in Philadelphia, said he was impressed with follow-up visits as recently as 2012, which showed farmers in Watson Run and Muddy Run, another watershed targeted for inspection, making progress on BMPs, including installing streambank fencing and riparian buffers.
“I think some amazing things happened. Very positive things happened that we had hoped to see in our first visit,” Capacasa said.
The agency’s approach in Lancaster County has gotten the attention of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, which is taking a very similar inspection-minded approach in the Soft Run watershed, an impaired tributary of the Upper Kish watershed in Mifflin County.
Twenty-one farms, two-thirds of which are Plain Sect, were visited by state officials last September and October to see if farmers had their required soil conservation and manure management plans and whether they were using best management practices to handle pollution.
“The end result was there was 21 farms visited, only two of the farms were totally in compliance,” said Dan Dunmire, manager of the Mifflin County Conservation District.
Six of the farms were found to have water quality issues, which Dunmire attributes to improper disposal of manure and having animal concentration areas too close to the stream.
Of those six farms, Dunmire said four came to the district for help, while the remaining two received help from the state and the district to get required conservation and manure management plans in place.
Some of the biggest problems found were issues pertaining to cow waste, pasture management and stabilizing stream crossings.
Dunmire said two of the 21 farms were issued field orders with deadlines to address problems, and one has yet to respond to its deadline.
Even though Dunmire received a year’s notice of DEP’s intentions, he said the local community dragged its feet a bit, waiting for the inspections to happen before doing anything.
Still, he thinks it’s started a process with a community that largely prefers to be isolated, even within a surrounding farm community.
“I think it is turning into a positive experience. I guess it’s gotten the ag community’s attention,” he said. “Money is not the issue. It’s more educational.”
Steve Taglang, environmental group manager in DEP’s Bureau of Conservation and Restoration, said the department took a page from what EPA was doing in Lancaster County when it decided to target Soft Run last fall.
“We saw what EPA did and thought that maybe this targeted approach could be the way to go,” Taglang said. “A lot of our inspections are based on complaint response. But we have also started to do a focused or more targeted approach.”
Taglang and Glenn Rider, director of the Bureau of Conservation, said the Soft Run inspections will be a test run to see what approach could be expanded to other areas.
“Once we figure out what is the right thing to do, or the best thing, we are going to try to expand that beyond this. We want to try and work through the process from inspections right through compliance,” Taglang said.
The targeted approach may prove to be better in the long run, given the staffing issues not only at DEP but also at conservation districts.
The EPA, through its Chesapeake Bay Regulatory and Accountability Grant, is paying for four positions at DEP specifically for inspection and compliance within the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
More than 600 inspections, Taglang said, have been done the past two years, with 300 compliance actions. These staff positions are in place until 2017 and each inspector is expected to perform between 100 and 125 inspection visits a year.
Conservation districts have been performing outreach visits since July 2011 with the idea of providing information on environmental and regulatory requirements. As of this past December, more than 6,000 of these visits have been done, 100 per conservation district technician.
Taglang and Rider expect another 4,000 of these visits to be done by July. They estimate there are between 30,000 and 40,000 farms in the Chesapeake Bay of the 63,000 farms statewide.
Dunmire said it puts additional stress on his ag compliance staff, which consists of only two people, one working full-time in Soft Run.
“We’re severely understaffed. We really are. It’s put some pressure on my ag staff. This is taking a lot more of our time than I initially thought it would,” he said, adding that another full-time or two full-time employees would help.
Funding for the district is decreasing, especially from the state. Budget cuts have resulted in the district losing $60,000 from the state. Its operating budget is $300,000, which doesn’t include money needed to put BMPs on farms — $400,000.
And even though the district will receive $46,000 through Marcellus Shale impact fees, Dunmire said there is still a funding shortfall from the state of $14,000.
Funding and staffing issues aside, Jeff Corbin, EPA’s senior adviser to the administrator for the Chesapeake Bay, said the key to cooperation in Lancaster County was open and honest communication between officials, even though he thinks there is still a lot of misinformation on EPA’s role in the TMDL process.
“I think the response in Lancaster was probably at the top of the list,” Corbin said. “I think there was a lot of reservation going in because of the Plain Sect community. I would say it went incredibly well. There was a lot of things that could have gone wrong and it went incredibly well.”
The fact that the state is following EPA’s lead in targeted inspections shows Capacasa that cooperation between federal and state officials, which at times has been strained, has worked.
“We have an ongoing oversight role with the state. But clearly, our intention is that the state be in the lead,” he said. “It’s kind of a fine compliment that DEP has chosen this watershed assessment approach. They really embraced this concept. They’ve incorporated this practice as their own commitment, and we’re pleased with that. It’s a model that’s showed excellent results.”
McNutt said he hopes the fear of the federal government inspecting farms and putting in new regulations has subsided a bit.
“I’d be very surprised to get a call and be alerted that EPA is back in,” he said. “I have a sense that’s not how they’re going to work right now. It’s not as heavy-handed.”