The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Sunday that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Inspector General found a "significant risk" that Georgia's program for regulating its largest livestock producers "is failing to protect water quality."
The state Environmental Protection Division and the Georgia Department of Agriculture are in charge of inspecting farms with large numbers of cows, pigs and chickens and how they deal with manure, which can pollute streams and lakes with nitrogen and phosphorus at levels that are dangerous to fish as well as people.
The EPA inspector general's report concluded that nearly three-fourths of state inspections of 48 large farms were either faulty or incomplete.
"It is surprising and unfortunate that Georgia is not doing everything it can to address these pollution problems," said April Ingle, executive director of the environmental group Georgia River Network.
Most of the big livestock farms store manure in liquid form in lagoons or spray it on fields as fertilizer. Unless it's managed carefully, that waste can cause pollutants to seep into rivers and reservoirs. Studies in the 1990s traced contaminated groundwater in North Carolina to manure lagoons at huge hog farms, prompting tougher state regulation.
In Georgia, state and federal regulators said they are still reviewing the inspector general's report and have asked for additional information on the investigation. The report, which was released in June, does not specify which farms had inspections deemed to be inadequate.
"We still have not been provided with adequate documentation from the inspector general's office for us to draw our own conclusions at this point," said Dominic Weatherill, industrial compliance manager for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. "We can't say that we are completely on board with all of its conclusions."
Arty Schronce, spokesman for the state Agriculture Department, said in an e-mail to the newspaper that the department is already taking steps to address complaints contained in the inspector general's report.
Federal environmental officials in Atlanta who oversee the state regulators said they agree with the general findings of the inspector general's report. But Chris Plymale, EPA's Southeast storm water enforcement chief, said he does not believe the large livestock farms are polluters.
"We really have no evidence from any surface water sampling that we can directly track back to any" large livestock farm he said.
Keith Boozer operates a poultry farm with 75,000 hens in Monroe. He described his most recent inspection as "very complete, very detailed" and he applauded the state's agriculture inspectors for not playing games of "gotcha."
"They are more than willing to work with you," Boozer said. "The inspectors that come out ask questions, they talk to you."
Federal regulations require large livestock farms to have a plan on what to do with all the manure from their animals. The inspector general's report found some of Georgia's large farms either did not have a plan or, if they did, they weren't following it.