2009-11-19 / Features

Conservation Corner


For the second time in two years, Fulton County has experienced a significant manure spill into Big Cove Creek. In October 2007, there was a manure spill of well over 200,000 gallons from a dairy farm just north of Mc- Connellsburg. On November 3, it happened again, this time from a dairy farm south of town. While exact quantities are hard to determine this spill was estimated to be tens of thousands of gallons. Slurry manure flowed about 1,500 feet from the manure storage pit through a small channel into Big Cove Creek.

The spill in 2007 was a very liquid wastewater, with low levels of manure solids, which spread out over a nearby cropland field and was further filtered through the heavily vegetated shoulder to Route 30 before entering Big Cove Creek. The water in the creek was turned the color of tea, and Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) documented one dead fish below the spill. Those operators paid a fine to the Commonwealth and have taken steps to ensure future spills do not occur.

The waste material from this newest spill was quite thick. The small channel emptying into Big Cove Creek was coated with manure, and Big Cove Creek was turned black as far down as Back Run Road. The PFBC and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) were notified as soon as Conservation District staff confirmed that the creek had been impacted by manure. Personnel from the PFBC arrived to evaluate how serious the situation had become. It was evident a major pollution event had occurred.

Conservation District and PFBC personnel were able to eventually meet with the farm operator and explained to him that manure from his storage structure had polluted the creek. The operator did not realize that his manure storage pit had overflowed and that the manure had reached Big Cove Creek. The officer from PFBC explained to the farm operator how serious this situation could become to the creek and to himself as the operator responsible for the spill. He further explained that it is illegal to pollute the waters of the Commonwealth. Beginning the following day, personnel from the PFBC started from a point three miles downstream and walked upstream along Big Cove Creek, documenting, “well over 1,000 dead fish in a segment of the stream less than a mile long.” PFBC calculates ITS fines based, in part, on the number of fish that are killed. In this latest spill, that fine will in all likelihood be levied on the farm operator.

Personnel from DEP met with the farm operator the day following the spill. The first thing DEP asked was whether the operator had Erosion and Sediment Compliance Plans and Manure Management Plans, neither of which the operator had. All farmers in Pennsylvania are required to have these written plans for their farm operations. It was decided at this point that there was not much to do except to empty the manure storage pit as quickly as possible, applying the manure to fields with appropriate vegetative cover. The farmer started the next morning to pump and spread the manure from the pit onto nearby cropland.

The property owner lives in Waynesboro. DEP spoke with him to inform him that he, as the landowner, may very well be held just as responsible as the operator for what occurred on his property. This highlights to all landowners that they may be held responsible for any pollution events occurring on their lands, even if the pollution was caused by a renter or tenant. If you own land farmed by others, you should ask yourself, “Is my renter in compliance with all of the requirements concerning manure management plans and erosion and sediment compliance plans?” Should a problem develop, you need to stay on top of it and not wait for DEP to show up on your doorstep.

This will be a developing situation over the next several months because as long as there are livestock on the farm, the threat of runoff pollution will remain very high. Unrelated to the manure spill, the farm operator is in the process of preparing to move his dairy operations to a farm north of Burnt Cabins. DEP is still formulating what the farm operator needs to do in the short term and what it will take to decommission the storage structure once the cattle are gone. But two manure spills within 24 months of each other is unacceptable to DEP, PFBC and to all that are concerned with local water quality.

Manure storage has allowed many farm operations to avoid spreading manure on a daily or weekly basis. By avoiding saturated, frozen or snow-covered ground, farmers are able to better care for their soil, avoid polluted runoff to local streams, and add manure when crops and soil can take best advantage of the nutrients manure contains. However, storing hundreds of thousands, or millions, of gallons of liquid manure is a tremendous responsibility. The risk of large pollution events is very real, if these storages are not properly maintained and managed.

The Conservation Corner article printed on October 22 discussed the president’s executive order instructing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take the lead in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. All landowners and farm operators should be concerned with their downstream neighbors. It is often said that “Farmers were the first environmentalists” and many farmers are exceptionally good stewards of land and water. Consider the stream near your farm. Are you doing your utmost to ensure that the water leaving your farm is the same or better than when it entered your property? Ask yourself, would you want to live downstream of your farming operation? Would you feel safe having your children or grandchildren wade in that stream? Is your farming operation environmentally friendly? The Fulton County Conservation District is available to make sure your answer is “Yes” for all of the above.

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