Poultry barns on the Eastern Shore. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

By Tom Pelton and Mariah Lamm

With a Chesapeake Bay cleanup deadline bearing down in less than five years, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring yesterday joined his counterparts in Maryland and the District of Columbia in filing a notice of intent to sue the Environmental Protection Agency over its failure to enforce a landmark 2010 bay restoration agreement.

Virginia is right to take legal action, because the Trump Administration EPA has been derelict in its duty to crack down on pollution from Pennsylvania (the Bay’s biggest polluter) and New York State.  However, Virginia should not only point the finger at others.  The commonwealth should also look in the mirror at its own bay cleanup efforts, which have fallen short in some important areas.

For example, a recent report by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) found that the poultry industry has nearly doubled recently on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, with the number of industrial-scale chicken houses rising from 254 to 480 in Accomack County over the last six years. These 85 million birds now produce 137,000 tons of manure annually, leading to over-application of fertilizer on over-saturated local fields and growing pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

Along with the rapid growth in the poultry industry have come frequent environmental violations, but no penalties from the state.  EIP’s examination of records from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality found that 74 percent of Eastern Shore poultry operations had a compliance problem in 2017-2019, including for improper handling of manure, missing or incomplete paperwork and unsanitary disposal of dead birds. But despite the numerous violations – and unhealthy levels of fecal bacteria in many Eastern Shore streams — the state imposed no fines.

Despite its progressive reputation, Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration has also been soft on another form of agricultural pollution in the Bay, manure from the livestock industry in the Shenandoah Valley. This is a problem, because farm runoff – as a category — is the largest single source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

Back in 2010, Virginia submitted a bay cleanup plan to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that  promised that the commonwealth, by 2025, would protect 95 percent of streams running through farms by fencing cattle out of waterways. In August of 2019, Virginia updated its plan to promise that 100 percent of farms would exclude livestock from perennial (or year-round) streams.

Fencing herds of livestock out of rivers and streams is important, according to the Chesapeake Bay Commission, because cattle defecate into waterways and erode riverbanks, knocking sediment laden with phosphorus and nitrogen downstream.  In part because of livestock waste, 80 percent of water monitoring sites in the Shenandoah Valley in 2017 and 2018 had levels of fecal bacteria that made the waterways unsafe for swimming, rafting or other water-contact recreation, according to data from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

Despite Virginia’s pledge to protect virtually all streams, however, by 2017 – the crucial half-way point in the current Bay cleanup initiative – aerial photographs of Virginia’s largest livestock counties, Rockingham and Augusta, revealed that only about 20 percent of the 1,676 farms with cattle had fenced their animals out of streams.  A follow up study by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation in March examined a narrower category of streams and farms – only perennial or year-round streams in Rockingham County — and found that 41 percent of farm parcels had fenced their livestock out of the waterways.

More significantly, the state’s rate of progress in convincing farmers to voluntarily adopt this “Bay Cleanup 101” pollution control technique has been a paltry 1 percent a year over the last 16 years. This suggests that by the deadline of 2025, fewer than half of livestock farms will have met Virginia’s own bay cleanup goals.

A new state law signed by Governor Northam on April 11 (SB 704) could mandate livestock fencing starting in 2026 if farmers fail to meet the state’s Bay cleanup goals.  This is looking increasingly likely, because Virginia’s voluntary, no-penalties approach to agricultural pollution in the bay has been about as successful as a police department that refuses to impose fines for speeding.

Over the next five years, the commonwealth is going to have to start getting serious about this problem by imposing modest fines (like speeding tickets) on farms that don’t follow the rules.  Virginia should also offer livestock operations higher state reimbursement rates to install streamside fencing and more money up front for pollution control projects.

All this is not to suggest that Virginia has not done anything positive for the Chesapeake Bay. The commonwealth should be strongly commended, for example, for investing hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade many of its sewage treatment plants.

But as Virginia readies its lawsuit against EPA over Pennsylvania and New York’s neglect of clean water, Virginia should also do more to get its own manure under control.

Tom Pelton is director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization, and author of the book, “The Chesapeake in Focus: Transforming the Natural World,” published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Mariah Lamm is an analyst at the Environmental Integrity Project and author of the recent report, “Poultry and Manure Production on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.