By Peggy Coffeen, Agri-ViewThursday, February 21, 2013 11:53 AM CST
This is no joke. During last week's annual meeting for WPDES CAFO owners, managers, permit and nutrient management plan writers meeting in Green Bay, Cheryl Burdett from the U.S. EPA Water Division made it clear that the agency is making its presence known in Wisconsin by checking up on large and medium-size concentrated animal feeding operations.
"We are going to knock on your door and you aren't going to know we are coming," Burdett stated, noting that these unannounced inspections are intended to provide a snapshot of farms when they are facing the greatest potential for contaminating water.
"We like to go out during wet weather. A lot of farmers say we came out during the worst conditions. It is planned," she continued. "We want to see your facility under the worst conditions."
CAFOs may be regulated under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting program. The NPDES program regulates the discharge of pollutants from point sources to waterways, and CAFOs are point sources, as defined by the Clean Water Act. While the threshold for large CAFOs is 700 dairy cows, farms within the range of 200 to 699 dairy cows are considered medium CAFOs. By regulatory definition, a medium CAFO also has a manmade ditch or pipe that carries manure or wastewater to surface water or the animals come into contact with surface water that passes through the area where they are confined. If an operation is found to be a significant contributor of pollutants, the permitting authority may designate a medium-sized facility as a CAFO.
"If you have a permit, we would enforce that permit. If you don't have a permit, and you meet these numbers, then you would be a CAFO and we would look at the Clean Water Act," Burdett explained.
Though EPA has delegated many of its responsibilities to be carried out by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in Wisconsin, part of their "oversight responsibility" is to check up on how the DNR is doing, which is why Burdett says her agency has been spending some time here.
"EPA retains the enforcement authority in all of our states, so we have commitments we need to make at a federal level of so many inspections per year, and we have been in all of our states except for Wisconsin," Burdett said, noting that Region 5, which she serves, also includes Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio. "We have not been in Wisconsin yet, so it's part of our job to make sure we are just doing a check-up in all of our states."
She noted particular areas of interest in the state, including the Sheboygan/Manitowoc watershed, Kewaunee and Brown Counties, the Lower Fox and Winnebago watersheds.
Burdett also explained that EPA makes decisions on which farms will be inspected based on a few key factors, starting with observations from aerial photos. From these photos, they are looking at the size of the facility, proximity to waterways and potential to discharge. If the facility does not meet the size requirements, an inspection may still be conducted, but the enforcement may be different. Inspections may also be the result of citizen complaints that have in some way been validated based off of compliance history, previous inspection information or location near waterways.
Inspections are thorough, including both a records review and a walk-through, and may take as long as five hours. The records review examines the nutrient management plan, as well as land application history. During the walk-through, Burdett looks for points where water may run through a portion of the production facility without containment. If a discharge or process waste water is observed leaving the facility and going to a ditch or waterway, EPA takes a sample for lab testing. For example, if manure is scraped to the end of a barn and there is no structure to prevent it from washing into a ditch, that would be considered a potential point for discharge.
Areas used to store feed are another common point of potential discharge. "Feed is a big one. This seems to be an issue in every state that we go to," Burdett noted. "Bagged silage, silage bunkers… I know it's a lot of water, however, if it comes in contact with your feed, it has to be contained in a storage structure. It can't go through a filter device and go to a creek. It needs to be contained."
Looking out into 2013, Burdett admitted that there is no set plan for the number of farms that EPA plans to inspect. However, future inspections will be a reflection of what is found. "It just depends what we keep finding," she added. "We will do more inspections if they keep finding stuff."