Illinois EPA ups monitoring of large livestock farms

Illinois EPA ups monitoring of large livestock farms

In response to an informal federal investigation, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has promised to keep a closer eye on large livestock farms in the state.

The Illinois EPA has said it will create and maintain a statewide inventory of confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, hire additional staff to manage pollutant discharge permit applications and inspect facilities, respond better to citizen complaints, as well as seek the authority to fine facilities that don't comply with its guidelines.

Through an agreement with the U.S. EPA, the Illinois EPA since the 1970s has administered the Clean Water Act's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program, which involves regulating and permitting point sources that discharge pollutants. Point sources can be water-treatment facilities, factories, large animal farms and others.

The Illinois Citizens for Clean Air & Water, a group of several grassroots organizations from around the state, filed a petition with the U.S. EPA to review Illinois' program "because we wanted Illinois to do a better job of regulating factory farms," said attorney Danielle Diamond. The petition essentially asked the EPA to start formal proceedings to take over the program from the Illinois EPA.

Diamond called the Illinois EPA's response "a positive step, a step we would not be seeing had we not filed that petition."

Earlier this fall, U.S. EPA's Region 5 issued a response that stated Illinois' program for CAFOs did not meet the minimum thresholds.

Bruce Yurdin, Illinois EPA's manager of field operations in the division of water-pollution control, said his agency's response, released earlier this month, did not directly respond to the U.S. EPA's claim that the program was not adequate.

"We tended to go with a response that more positive and little more direct," including identifying several corrective actions and recommendations, he said.

Yurdin said the agency in the short term plans to create a "snapshot" or central list of CAFOs in Illinois, with help from the Illinois Department of Agriculture, which regulates the construction of such facilities through the Livestock Management Facilities Act, and the Illinois Department of Public Health, which inspects dairies.

"The long-term plan is to develop a GIS (geographic information system)-based program," that will be available to EPA staff throughout the state, he said. For example, if a citizen complaint was called in, the EPA would be able to type in a farm, watershed or township name and see what facilities are there, complete with recent aerial photos of the site, according to Yurdin.

As for dealing with citizen complaints, the Illinois EPA pledged to establish procedures for responding.

The Illinois EPA also said the number of agency personnel who deal with large livestock facilities is proposed to double. It currently has six people in offices in Champaign, Rockford, Peoria, Springfield and Marion both issuing permits and conducting inspections of CAFOs.

Three positions will be added to the Springfield office to focus on permitting and three new inspectors are planned for offices in Rockford, Peoria and Marion.

In response to the U.S. EPA's recommendation that the state agency issue permits to livestock farms that are required to have one under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program, as well as "take timely and appropriate enforcement" to address a farm's noncompliance with the program's requirements, Yurdin said the agency was "sorting through what applications we have in house." He estimated there are a little less than 40.

A large livestock farm is not supposed to discharge any waste such as manure or silage leachate, which is liquid runoff from silage or animal feed, Diamond said.

"An NPDES permit puts measures in place to prevent a discharge from happening and the big thing is having a nutrient management plan," she said. "Since one CAFO can have as much waste as a small city, there needs to be a plan for where to put it," when to apply manure to fields, how to deal with emergencies such as a possible lagoon overflow, Diamond said.

The NPDES permit application deals with nutrient management plans (how to deal with all the manure), including documenting and keeping records of it.

Part of the permit application involves that nutrient management plan being open for the public to review and comment on. The permit application also deals with a facility's plans to address stormwater issues as well as plans for composting animals that die on the farm.

"Illinois EPA has been sitting on a number of incomplete applications for a number of years and trying to get info from the applicants. There does not appear to be a real burning reason for applicants to file their paperwork in a timely fashion. They can ride under radar until there's an actual discharge," said Stacy James, a water resources scientist with Champaign-based Prairie Rivers Network.

"One of the problems we run into is getting partial applications, but not having a mechanism for getting the remainder of application in," Yurdin said.

One criticism the U.S. EPA outlined in its report was the need for the Illinois EPA to be able to take some active steps against these facilities, "that we can't let deficient applications linger," Yurdin said.

The Illinois EPA, however, does not have the authority to do that and would need an administrative order to do so. The agency intends to seek that authority.

Jim Kaitschuk, executive director of the Illinois Pork Producers Association, said he was not sure how the Illinois EPA plans would affect farmers in the state. He did say he disagreed with the U.S. EPA's findings.

"Facilities are always managed with the intent there's never going to be a problem," he said.

However, just because a facility has a NPDES permit does not mean that an accident is not going to occur, he said.

Kaitschuk called the waste produced from livestock farms valuable for its nitrogen and phosphorus content and said it is "part of the crop cycle of sustainability," because the manure goes to treat fields of grain that will later go to feed the animals there.

"Producers are not looking to harm the environment. They live off it," he said.