New Rules For Brown Fields?

This article was originally published in City & State Newspaper

April 2, 2012

When heavy December rainstorms washed thousands of gallons of cow manure at an upstate dairy farm into Cayuga County watersheds, the farm was cited for violating state water quality standards.

But the farm’s managers had done everything by the book. Twin Birch Farms, a 2,000-cow operation in Skaneateles, broke no rules when it spread manure across its fields without tilling the manure into the ground.

Within hours of the Dec. 21 downpour, frothy discharge was gushing into tributaries of Owasco and Skaneateles Lakes, which supply the drinking water for much of Cayuga County. Tests showed the contamination was absorbed before it reached the lakes, but regulators were worried.

“When we showed up, it looked like a disaster,” said Owasco Lake Watershed Inspector Katie Jakaub. “There was a lot of foam.”

To state environmentalists, the spill was another argument for stricter farm regulations as climate change increases the likelihood of catastrophic flooding— even as farmers say their hands are already tied by bureaucrats.

One of the strongest advocates for reducing environmental regulations, Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, has a family summer cottage on Skaneateles Lake just three miles from Twin Birch Farms.

“Small and medium-sized farms in New York need all the tools possible to remain profitable, and in doing so contribute to our local and national economy,” Buerkle says on her website. “Our agriculture can compete in a free world market if we do not hinder it with excessive regulations.”

She did not respond to a request for comment about the spill. At a recent meeting with farmers in her Central New York district to discuss the industry’s obstacles, Twin Birch Farms owner Dirk Young spoke up, saying the government has too much say in how farms are run.

“The government needs to get the hell out and let us work,” Young said, according to the Syracuse Post-Standard. He did not respond to requests for comment, but DEC records show his farm was cited for two previous manure spills.

Commercial farms generate far more manure than their owners can use as fertilizer, and farmers are permitted to dispose of the excess by spreading it on their own land. They must state their plans to do so in nutrient-management plans, which are sent annually to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Aside from the obvious unpleasantness and the dangerous pathogens that come from dumping animal excrement in drinking water, manure contains nutrients that feed aquatic weeds and algae—starving the water of oxygen and killing fish.

“Do I think that the [farm] regulations need totting up? Yes,” said Charles Greene, president of the Owasco Watershed Lake Association. “Given the prevalence of seasonal waterways on most dairy farms, there needs to be very careful attention to the moisture conditions in the soil and also the upcoming weather.”

Climate change also poses a threat to water quality, as storms once thought to take place only every 50 or 100 years have become regular threats.

“The hundred-year storms sometimes come every couple of years now,” said environmental lawyer and Columbia University Law School professor Reed Super. “Climate change is typically not taken into account in any weather related aspect of environmental law to the extent that it should be.”

DEC has only 20 staff members assigned to inspecting the state’s 36,000 large farms but said in a statement that inspectors routinely conduct compliance inspections in their respective regions.

“DEC is constantly working with other state agencies and stakeholders to ensure the proper administration of the program,” said spokeswoman Lisa King. But farmers’ advocates argue that the industry already faces a heavy burden from government regulation.

“It’s never been our experience that government and environmental regulators are too easy on farms,” said Matt Nelligan of the New York Farm Bureau. “What we do here clearly is more restrictive and progressive than what happens in the rest of the country.”

About Eliza Ronalds-Hannon