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Playing catch-up with poultry pollution

PETERSBURG - Sonny Taylor has everything the well-equipped poultry farmer needs: a 40-by-80-foot shed to shield manure from rain and keep it out of streams and a smaller shed where dead chickens can rot into fertilizer.

Taylor's farm, on a gravel road off U.S. 220, so perfectly meets recommended environmental practices for poultry farmers that state agriculture officials put a photo of it on the cover of the book that contains those guidelines.

Every poultry farmer should be so lucky. But they're not.

Three-quarters of the 350 farmers in the Potomac Valley don't have the right plans or equipment to dispose of poultry manure, federal officials estimate. Half don't use recommended methods to get rid of dead birds, officials say.

As a result, poultry manure has polluted the Potomac River headwaters streams so much that a national environmental group named the Potomac the seventh most endangered river in North America.

Why? Simple answers are hard to find. In tough economic times, people hesitate to question any kind of development. In rural areas, folks often object to anyone telling them what to do with their land.

But in many ways it can all be boiled down to one word: planning.

Local officials in and around Hardy County didn't plan well for the tripling of the area's poultry production over the last decade. State government wasn't much help. And neither was WLR Foods, the corporation that drove the poultry explosion.

"I don't see where we, as a state agency, had any role in planning this development," said Barb Taylor, chief of the state Division of Environmental Protection's Office of Water Quality.

"There is very little long-term planning in the state," Taylor said last month. "It's all screwed up because we're so focused on bringing in dollars and jobs."

Broadway, Va.-based WLR bought the Rockingham Poultry processing plant in Moorefield in 1988. The company spent $50 million over five years to double the plant's capacity to 90 million chickens a year. To feed the plant's appetite, Potomac Valley poultry farmers built 300 new poultry houses. The number of chicken houses in a five-county area increased from 570 to more than 870 between 1991 and 1996.

But farmers weren't required to build their houses a decent distance from streams. They didn't have to build sheds to keep rain from washing manure into streams. They didn't have to have enough farmland on which to spread all the manure their birds create.

State and local officials didn't regulate the poultry growth. For the most part, they didn't even help farmers do things right.

During the first few years of poultry growth, farmers were offered some help. Between 1989 to 1991, the state Department of Agriculture offered cost-sharing money to help farmers plan proper manure disposal and build manure storage sheds, according to a 1994 report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Through this $1 million program, about 40 plans were written and sheds built for farmers in Hardy, Grant and Pendleton counties.

But in the peak years of poultry growth - 1993 and 1994, when chicken production doubled to more than 80 million birds a year - there was no cost-sharing money available to farmers, according to the fish and wildlife report.

A full-scale cleanup plan was never formally proposed until September 1995, when the Potomac Valley Soil Conservation District asked for U.S. Department of Agriculture assistance, government records show.

"What more can we do?"

Now, federal and state agriculture officials are throwing millions of dollars at the poultry problem.

Agriculture agencies are now offering more help to farmers to plan their manure disposal. Farmers can get federal grants and low-interest state loans to pay to install environmental protection measures. WLR Foods will require its contract poultry growers to have plans for proper manure disposal by the end of next year, 10 years after the company came to West Virginia.

At the same time, poultry promoters - in and out of government - say farmers need more time to voluntarily clean up their act before regulatory agencies force them to.

"When somebody says West Virginia isn't doing enough, I have to ask, what more can we do?" said Gus Douglass, who is serving his eighth term as state Agriculture Commissioner.

"We don't have all the nutrient management plans working. We don't have all the dead bird composters," Douglass said in May. "But we're certainly working toward that."

Others say there was no way to plan well for the poultry explosion. No one realized how fast it was going to occur, they say.

"Hindsight is 20-20, so sure you could say we should have done this and we should have done that," said Lance Tabor, executive director of the state agriculture department's Soil Conservation Agency.

"But I don't think you ever put all the protections in place before something happens," Tabor said. "That never happens."

Legacy of mistakes

It certainly never happens in West Virginia. And we don't seem to learn from our mistakes.

Coal operators strip-mined the state's hills for years with little regard for reclamation. Congress stepped in and passed the landmark 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

Today, coalfield citizens complain the federal law does little to protect them from rock blasts, dust storms and water supply problems caused by huge mountaintop removal mines.

A century ago, timber companies roared through the state. In a 30-year period, 85 percent of West Virginia's 10 million acres of virgin forest were cut. The logging flurry led to widespread flooding and forest fires.

Today, the trees have grown back and the timber companies returned. State officials welcome them with open arms, but West Virginia still has little real regulation of loggers.

Strip malls and subdivisions continue to pop up in areas of the Eastern Panhandle and Putnam County.

But in those areas, there is little land-use planning or advanced infrastructure development. People complain they can't get decent water service or police protection in their growing communities.

"There's a fairly strong feeling in this state that my land is mine and I'll do what I want to with it," said Barbara Howe, a West Virginia University historian who studies planning issues.

"It goes from the individual homeowners up to big companies," she said. "The effect is you end up with uncontrolled growth and that lessens everybody's property values."

Ronald Lewis, a WVU history professor who has written extensively about coal and timber development in the state, said the lack of planned development is also driven by business boosters.

"Any kind of planning goes against that kind of free-for-all development," Lewis said. "All you have to do is say economic development and people are neutralized if they have an opinion that goes against it.

"It's almost inevitable that we take this approach," Lewis said. "It's always been this way, even before statehood."

Jim Kotcon, president of the West Virginia Environmental Council, said the group has for years supported better land-use planning in the state.

Environmentalists, Kotcon said, favor an industrial siting law, a statewide environmental policy act and more of an emphasis on sustainable forms of economic development.

"Each one of these would have been of real benefit to the development of the poultry industry and it's a lesson I hope the state agencies will look to seriously when they develop future projects."

Plenty of warning

It's not as if no one knew the state poultry industry was expanding. Plenty of people, both in and out of government, warned that some planning was in order.

In 1992, soil scientist John C. Vandevender wrote a series of recommendations for managing poultry farm waste in the Potomac Valley.

"Individuals who want to start new poultry production units and current producers considering expansion must give careful consideration to manure management and the disposal of birds lost through mortality," Vandevender wrote.

"The potential for environmental damage if litter and dead birds are poorly managed must be taken seriously."

Among other suggestions, Vandevender recommended that poultry farmers should have concrete plans for manure and dead bird disposal in place before they start raising birds.

Farmers should also carefully choose poultry house locations to avoid being too close to streams, neighbors and highways. They should also avoid locating upwind from populated areas, Vandevender wrote.

Various state and federal agencies, along with Potomac Valley poultry processing companies, published Vandevender's suggestions in September 1992.

Still, these same agencies and companies spent several years writing a very similar set of recommendations that was published in January 1995.

In the fall of 1992, George Constanz, an ecologist then working for the nonprofit Pine Cabin Run Ecological Laboratory in Hampshire County, questioned the lack of planning of poultry industry growth.

"To this situation of industrial growth in an unregulated setting, add aggressive promotion by state government officials," Constanz wrote in the lab's journal, Cacapon.

"But in this headlong rush to create jobs, I detect previous little concern for our groundwater and surface waters," he wrote.

"My current interpretation of the big picture is that poultry operations ... go unregulated in their silt, fecal, and carcass byproducts," Constanz wrote. "Further, the industry is expanding in the Cacapon River basin because it is being limited elsewhere and because it is being courted by state officials.

"Unregulated, this process will degrade the entire Lost River and the upper halves of the North and Cacapon Rivers."

And in 1994, WVU professors Tim Phipps and Jerald Fletcher warned of the poultry buildup in a WVU book, "West Virginia in the 1990s: Opportunities for Economic Progress."

"The expansion of West Virginia's broiler industry does not come without cost," Phipps and Fletcher wrote. "Broiler operations generate large amounts of poultry manure that must either be spread on sufficient quantities of land, composted for use as fertilizer, or fed to cattle; otherwise, the manure can lead to water pollution.

"The increasing concentration of the broiler industry in the Potomac Highlands and a relative shortage of cultivated land for spreading manure will require careful environmental management by both the industry and the state," they wrote. "Otherwise, growth in the broiler industry could reduce recreation and tourism and the quality of life in the state.

"The broiler industry can be expected to continue to grow in West Virginia as long as costs of operation remain lower and environmental regulation is perceived to be more lax than in competing states," they wrote.

"As an example of a conflict, stimulating the growth of animal confinement operations in the Potomac Highlands may lead to increased water pollution, damage to trout fisheries in Seneca Creek and branches of the Potomac, and limit the growth of recreation and tourism in that area."

Unanswered questions

Will current plans for cleaning up the poultry industry be enough in the long run?

Environmentalists doubt it. They believe that relying only on a good-faith effort by farmers to meet manure-disposal guidelines will fail. If best management practices aren't required, they say, some poultry farmers who don't comply will get a competitive advantage.

"Voluntary is never going to work," said Hank Kopple, a Petersburg accountant and member of the local planning committee. "Why should people do things that are going to cost money?"

As the result of a lawsuit filed by various environmental groups, the state DEP will over the next few years have to issue tougher pollution restrictions for streams which don't currently meet state standards.

Under settlement of the lawsuit approved in July, DEP will first attack pollution problems in the South Branch of the Potomac River. Six streams there are polluted with excessive amounts of fecal coliform bacteria, in large part because of poultry farm runoff, studies and court records show.

Later this month, DEP will publish a report that outlines what kinds of pollution reductions are needed to clean up those streams. But DEP officials say it could take years for them to come up with a plan for how sewage plants, factories - or poultry farms - can actually make those pollution reductions.

Meanwhile, poultry farms in at least three areas of the Potomac Valley - Lost River, South Fork and Mill Creek - are producing more chicken manure than they have land on which to spread it.

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency review in 1996 concluded that agriculture officials need to do more to get excess chicken manure moved out of the South Branch and onto farms and fields in other parts of the state.

"Even with the proposed nutrient management practices, these watersheds may still be subject to continued environmental degradation because there is too much litter being produced for application on the available land," EPA said.

"If adding markets and product development is not accomplished, the plan should address what will be done with the excess litter."

Perhaps most importantly, the current plans do nothing about a key problem with poultry manure disposal: what to do about the phosphorous.

Poultry litter contains three times as much phosphorous as commercial fertilizer farmers might buy at a store. So when they apply enough phosphorous to get the amount of nitrogen they need to foster crop growth, they end up with three times as much phosphorous as they need.

In the Potomac Valley, agriculture officials base suggested poultry litter crop application rates on the amount of nitrogen needed by crops, not on the more important phosphorous number.

In some cases, these application rates allow 10 times more phosphorous from poultry litter to be applied to crops than is needed, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report

Ed Kesecker, a federal agriculture department district conservationist in Moorefield, said current cleanup plans should eventually help take care of bacterial pollution in the South Branch.

But, Kesecker said, no one knows what will happen over the long run if farmers continue to apply phosphorous-heavy manure to Potomac Valley land. Scientists don't know how much of the phosphorous will run off fields into streams. And they don't know how much can be absorbed by soils before the land's ability to support crops is harmed.

State and local officials, Kesecker said, need to "sit down and make a good assessment of what is a realistic level at which you concentrate this industry.

"No one has really done that," Kesecker said. "The question is, are we hitting the limit as far as expansion? Can we take 20 percent more or do we have 20 percent too much? No one has tried to figure that out."

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