Virginia officials have failed to perform required inspections on the state's poultry and livestock farms, part of a broad pattern of lax oversight, funding shortages for anti-pollution measures and other problems that undercut efforts to protect the Chesapeake Bay, state auditors have found.
Manure is a key source of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff that feeds massive algae blooms in the bay, which in turn suck out oxygen needed for plants, crabs and other aquatic life. Nitrogen compounds in drinking water can also be harmful to people.
General Assembly auditors found that inspectors with the Department of Environmental Quality, who are responsible for making sure manure regulations are followed, frequently did not perform mandated yearly inspections. When inspections were done, they generally relied on information provided by farmers rather than firsthand checks, and few fines were imposed, even for repeat offenders, the auditors said.
Such a cooperative system makes it difficult to gauge whether farm operators are following the rules, said Eric H. Messick, one of the auditors. "We didn't have a sense for whether people were actually telling the truth or not telling the truth," Messick said. Of the 209 inspection reports reviewed, about one-third showed a problem that needed fixing. Just one fine was issued, he said.
W. Tayloe Murphy Jr., Virginia's secretary of natural resources, said he accepted some criticism of the inspection system he oversees but laid the blame on a lack of funding. Murphy said the same auditing operation, known as the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, had in recent years deemed Virginia last in the nation on spending to protect natural resources.
"We don't do the inspections to the extent that we should. . . . We simply don't have the financial resources to employ the number of inspectors it would take to be present at every farm" when manure is spread, Murphy said. "When you rank 50th, I think you have a good argument that we don't have enough resources."
Some environmentalists argued that the auditors missed the big picture. Ann Jennings, Virginia assistant director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that although enforcement problems exist, a bigger concern is the fact that the vast majority of farmland in Virginia is not covered by so-called nutrient management plans.
Such plans are required on Virginia farms with 20,000 or more chickens, as well as other livestock operations, but not on most farms. The state has a voluntary program that offers incentives for following manure and fertilizer recommendations geared to minimize runoff.
In Virginia, about 522,000 acres of farmland are covered by such required or voluntary plans, less than 9 percent of the state's agricultural land. In Maryland, 1.1 million acres are governed by such plans -- 70 percent of the state's agricultural and pasture lands, according to Louise Lawrence, the Maryland official in charge of the efforts. The plans are required in Maryland on farms that take in $2,500 or more in annual sales.
"We need many, many more acres" under such plans in Virginia, Jennings said, adding that the best solution is to raise cash for incentives. The foundation is proposing legislation to add a fee of $1 a week to water bills for every household in the state to raise money to clean up the bay.
The bulk of the money in the foundation's proposal would go toward upgrading sewage treatment. Sewage plants and industrial facilities are Virginia's top sources of nitrogen, followed by agriculture.
Russ Perkinson, an official at Virginia's Department of Conservation and Recreation, said sludge extracted from several states' sewage plants and spread on Virginia farms is another key source of bay pollution.