There is no disagreement that agricultural pollution is the key culprit in the deteriorated state of the Susquehanna River. Nitrogen, phosphorus and soil washing off farm fields are the leading pollutants that cause algae blooms, deplete oxygen from the water and destroy healthy habitat for fish and other aquatic life in the river and do the same damage when the water reaches the Chesapeake Bay.
Cleaning up agricultural pollution in the Susquehanna is at the center of the multi-state effort to restore the Chesapeake, and Pennsylvania is legally responsible for meeting pollution reduction goals contained in the cleanup plan. But the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is failing to enforce agricultural water protection laws, so the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is stepping in to do its own inspections of farms, train DEP personnel and monitor DEP’s use of federal funds meant to help the state curb farm pollution.
Conservation Pennsylvania’s Kim Snell-Zarcone did a study of DEP’s performance under a federal $1.5 million Chesapeake Bay Regulatory and Accountability Program grant meant to expand the agency’s enforcement capacity. Most of this funding was supposed to help DEP inspect more small farms, the source of much pollution. Kim’s findings include:
- · Almost half of the inspections were conducted at large farms which DEP is already required to do;
- · More than half the farms did not keep adequate records so regulators are unable to track the implementation of pollution control activities like proper manure spreading;
- · A quarter of the farms violated the law and polluted a waterway;
- · DEP is not adequately enforcing laws that require farmers to maintain structurally sound manure storage facilities.
Cleaning up agricultural pollution in the Susquehanna River is also a focus of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and its executive director, John Arway, is frustrated with DEP’s failure to take strong action to curb farm pollution. This week he sent a letter to the EPA asking it for more help in enforcing the law and developing a better plan to clean up the river.
The Susquehanna needs its own pollution cleanup plan and a strong commitment from DEP to enforce the laws that require farms to control water pollution. EPA’s latest action to step in is welcome, and declaring the river as impaired would give all the agencies working on Susquehanna cleanup a powerful tool to help get the job done.