(RICHMOND, VA)—The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) is taking legal action to challenge Virginia's rules for large livestock farms, arguing the state is failing to protect streams, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay by allowing farm animals unfettered access to streams.
In written arguments filed in Richmond Circuit Court, CBF maintains that the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the State Water Control Board erred last year in approving a new 10-year Virginia Pollution Abatement permit governing the state's largest confined dairy, cattle, pig, and poultry farms.
"DEQ and the Water Board specifically declined to require Virginia's largest livestock farms to fence their animals out of farm streams," said Peggy Sanner, CBF senior Virginia attorney. "This even though stream fencing is one of the five priority conservation practices that, as a matter of state policy, Virginia advocates farmers use to improve the health of farm animals, protect the quality of local streams, and restore the Chesapeake Bay."
Keeping cattle and other livestock out of streams is critical for clean water. The wading animals erode stream banks and excrete waste in the water, increasing bacteria, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution for those downstream. Excess nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution has long been identified as the Bay's most serious problem. Further, according to DEQ's own data, a significant number of Virginia streams identified as polluted are because of bacterial contamination, primarily from farm animals in streams.
In its court papers, CBF notes that the Virginia statute authorizing the farm livestock permit specifically requires "adequate buffer zones, where waste shall not be applied" to protect water quality in surface waters. CBF maintains that allowing livestock to freely apply their manure and urine in and beside streams does not constitute an adequate buffer.
CBF also contends that DEQ and the Water Board failed in their responsibility to ensure the permit complies with State Water Control Law, including provisions stating the Commonwealth's responsibilities to "prevent any increase in pollution" and "reduce existing pollution."
"By allowing livestock in streams, the permit cannot ensure it will prevent increases in pollution or reduce existing pollution," Sanner said.
CBF's lawsuit asks the court to direct the state to revise the permit and require large animal feeding operations to exclude livestock from streams and rivers, consistent with existing state law and the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, the regional plan to restore the Bay.
Sanner cautioned that CBF's legal action is not directed at individual farmers but rather at the state. CBF continues to advocate for additional state and federal support to help farmers install conservation practices and for Virginia to provide 100 percent cost-share funding for livestock exclusion, whether or not the activity is required by permit.
Oral arguments in the case are scheduled to be heard July 2 at 2 p.m. in Richmond Circuit Court.