Mark Thomas lives in Peach Bottom Township with his wife and two children. Several hundred yards away, the Gemmill family operates a farm that has existed for generations.
A few years ago, Thomas noticed something wrong with his family. His daughter complained of stomach troubles, and the rest of the Thomas clan experienced breathing issues.
On the neighboring farm, two sons from the Gemmill family are trying to transform their hog farm into one built to house 4,400 pigs. With a society that demands bulk food at cheap prices, Advertisement the expansion offered a chance for the Gemmills’ farm to remain part of a dwindling corps of family farms able to stay afloat financially.
The proposal would also qualify the farm as a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO — the type of farm that has drawn heated concerns from environmentalists and instilled fear in neighbors.
Thomas believes the expansion will worsen his family’s health, and has joined a growing chorus of critics who are demanding tighter regulation of CAFOs. Mark Thomas with the second well that was drilled on his Peach Bottom Township property after the first well tested high for nitrates. (Daily Record/Sunday News — Paul Kuehnel)
The Gemmill family denies that the farm is a health risk and believes the expansion is needed to continue a family legacy.
The state, which oversees factory farms locally, believes it’s doing everything it can while being fair to all sides. In fact, state officials say they run one of the better CAFO programs in the country.
Nationwide, the federal government appears to be letting farmers decide whether they need to apply for a permit.
In late October, buried under the excitement over the historic presidential election, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized changes to its requirements for factory farms. The changes lifted a requirement that all factory farms have to apply for a permit or prove they don’t need one.
Now the only CAFOs that are required to get permits are those that plan to or already discharge into streams, lakes or rivers. The others face stiff penalties if they do.
Federal officials say the changes protect water quality while keeping the farming industry competitive. Environmentalists, however, say the deregulation will only promote fecal cesspools and breeding grounds for resilient supergerms.
But how will the change affect Pennsylvania and its laws governing those farms? State officials say it won’t.
“We have regulations that are much more stringent than in the nation,” said John Repetz, state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman.
Even some CAFO critics, such as the Michael Helfrich takes a water sample from the Thomas farm in Peach Bottom Township. Behind him is the Gemmill family s hog shed. (Daily Record/Sunday News — Paul Kuehnel) Chesapeake Bay Foundation, agree with that statement.
“Pennsylvania has been pretty consistent in regulating them,” said Kelly O’Neill, an agriculture policy analyst with the group’s Harrisburg office.
Here are some of the basics of Pennsylvania’s CAFO program:
Built off the state’s Clean Streams Law, it started almost a decade ago and now oversees 325 to 350 farms in the state. There are also roughly 1,000 smaller, confined-animal farms in the state.
Half the manure produced in Pennsylvania comes from those farms, said Doug Goodlander, director of nutrient and odor management for the state conservation commission.
Two state agencies — DEP and the state conservation commission — are charged with regulating those farms. DEP (Daily Record/Sunday News — Carrie Hamilton) makes sure a farm is not damaging the environment, while the conservation commission ensures manure and odors are properly managed.
Each CAFO in the state must obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, and each must periodically inspect its own farms.
In York County, DEP has given permits to 14 CAFOs, a number that has largely held steady over the years. Two have been cited for manure spills, according to the agency’s records. None of the spills penetrated the local water supply.
Repetz said that the frequency of DEP inspections and the intensity of penalties are mainly determined on a case-by-case basis.
Like the EPA officials, Repetz and Goodlander said the state prefers to work through problems with farmers, but only if there are no environmental impacts.
“If a farmer abides by the permit, there should not be a problem,” Repetz said. “The main thing is trying to prevent runoff or if it goes into a stream.”
But that’s what some in York County fear will happen.
Thomas, chairman of a grassroots group against CAFOs, blames his family’s illnesses on water contamination.
Last year, he said, his daughter was diagnosed with an H. Pylori infection. It’s a common cause of stomach ulcers and inflamed stomach linings, according to MayoClinic.com.
Water samples revealed elevated nitrate levels that made the water dangerous, Thomas said. He believes the contamination was caused by manure spread on fields on the Gemmill farm next door.
The farm is not operating as a CAFO, but Thomas worries what will happen if it does.
“We can’t get anyone to care,” he said. “I believe there are places for CAFOs, but not in Delta.”
David Gemmill, whose sons are proposing the CAFO expansion of the family’s farm, doesn’t believe the manure spreading caused the Thomases’ ailments. The complaints mainly come from homeowners who don’t want to deal with having a farm in their backyard, he said.
The fact is, he said, CAFOs provide farmers with an option that keeps their farms alive in a fading industry.
“We’re losing animal agriculture every day,” he said. “We lose farmers every day.”
Fawn Township farmer Jamie Moran believes CAFOs are generally destructive, but he understands why many family farms become factory farms.
“When farmers see a large business that does it and is successful, they try to emulate it,” he said.
Expanding into a CAFO isn’t an easy process for Pennsylvania farmers, however.
In Pennsylvania, farmers have to set up emergency response plans and odor- and nutrient-management plans before the state will give them permits. Then they are subject to self inspections and reviews to ensure they are adhering to the regulations.
All of that can be a drain on their finances and time.
“That’s why it’s in their best interests to follow the rules,” Repetz said.
Not all farmers are clamoring to become CAFOs, he said. They might earn more money with dense concentrations of animals, but they are subject to the highest level of farm regulation in the state.
Not strict enough?
Still, Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Michael Helfrich said those regulations aren’t restrictive enough.
Helfrich said he’s seen manure applied on farms during rainfall or on frozen ground, which causes it to run off the field and wash into streams.
“These CAFOs come into areas that are already stressed,” he said.
Trusting farmers to inspect themselves is too risky, he said, especially when many CAFOs are backed by large corporations that don’t have roots in the community.
The state environmental department tries to inspect each farm annually, Repetz said, but a bare-bones staff prevents them from ramping up the reviews.
As mandated by the EPA, DEP is required to do one inspection every five years, he said.
For Thomas, the solution to the CAFO issue is giving each municipality the ultimate authority to permit CAFOs. Under Pennsylvania’s Act 38, local ordinances regulating farms cannot be more restrictive than state law.
If the state regulations are as ineffective as some believe, that means residents have little power to keep themselves and the environment safe.
But what Repetz said is forgotten is that some CAFOs are farms that crossed a statistical threshold and don’t differ much from the scores of farms that are just under the mark — farms that aren’t subject to intense state scrutiny.
“People aren’t aware of what a CAFO is or how it operates,” Repetz said. “They’re assuming the bad stuff is going to happen. It’s really a statistic that makes it a CAFO.”