The following story was written by a University of Missouri student as part of the 2011 Sonja Hillgren/Farm Journal Ag Journalism Field Reporting Institute. Learn more.
It also appeared in the November 2011 issue of Farm Journal and on AgWeb. Read the printed version here.
By Joe Pecoraro
Charles Parker, a cotton farmer in southeast Missouri, can think of more than a few creative ways to spend $13,000. Installing a secondary fuel containment zone isn’t at the top of his list, but that’s exactly where Parker will be dedicating dollars this fall.
He knows the clock is ticking to meet the protocols of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Oil Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure Program.
"The contamination area, after concrete and construction costs, will run at least $12,500," says Parker, who farms near Senath, Mo., and is also chairman of the National Cotton Council. "I’ve never had a spill in my life and don’t see that I would, but I’d rather get it taken care of than deal with the hassle [of not complying]."
SPCC may sound like an acronym for a college football conference, but the program is actually a long-running effort to make sure petroleum products don’t enter the U.S. water supply. The program is authorized through the Clean Water Act to help facilities, including farms, prevent a discharge of oil into navigable waters or adjoining shorelines.
A form of this law has been in effect since 1974, but some in the agricultural community believe that the EPA is unfairly targeting agriculture productions now more than ever.
A key element of the new rule requires farms to develop, maintain and implement an oil spill prevention plan. These plans are intended to help farms prevent oil spills, as well as control a spill should one occur.
Specifically, the prevention program applies to producers storing more than 1,320 gallons of petroleum products above ground, or 42,000 gallons in containers buried completely underground where a discharge might find its way to a shoreline, lake, river or stream.
Farms that began operation after Aug. 16, 2002, have until Nov. 10, 2011, to prepare an SPCC plan. Farms that started operation before August 2002 are expected to have already implemented a plan or have one as soon as possible.
EPA spokesperson Kris Lancaster says farms with a total oil storage capacity between 1,320 and 10,000 gallons in above-ground containers, and have a good spill history, may prepare and self-certify their own SPCC Plan.
Farms with a storage capacity of more than 10,000 gallons, or have had an oil spill, must have their plan certified by a professional engineer. Nurse tanks and pesticide containers are exempt from the rules.
"Since 2002, most of the amendments to the program have been to reduce the burden on small businesses including small farmers," says Lancaster. "Most recently the program was changed so that farmers can self-certify if they store less than 10,000 gallons and have no containers larger than 5,000 gallons. They can fill out a fill-in-the-blank plan that eventually becomes their SPCC Plan."
Because Parker currently stores more than 10,000 gallons of oil products, he does not meet the requirements to self-certify. He’s currently working with an Arkansas-based engineer to build a concrete structure that will contain fuel in the event of a spill. Parker says he became aware of the SPCC program through his association with the National Cotton Council.
Proper plans must include a written list of petroleum storage locations and a description of the steps used to transfer fuel from storage tanks to farm vehicles that reduce the possibility of a spill. Farmers must also detail measures to be used in the event of a spill and keep a list of emergency contacts.
The final part of implementing the plan is providing effective secondary containment for bulk storage containers. Double-walled tanks are considered containment. Earthen or concrete dikes that hold the full capacity of the storage containers plus rainfall are an option.
Compliance with this program is required by law, but Lancaster emphasized the focus of enforcement is not solely on farms.
"We have not focused our inspection efforts on farms or ranches, however if there are spills in the past we have responded accordingly," he says.
Some believe the EPA has not done everything necessary to inform farmers on what they need to do to comply. Garret Hawkins, Director of National Legislative Programs at the Missouri Farm Bureau, says the EPA has not been clear on why farmers have been targeted with this program.
"I think it is bothersome that the EPA has the mantra that ‘just because we haven’t talked to you, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t apply to you," Hawkins says. "[The EPA] says this most recent push is for farms that began operation after 2002, but how many farms does that really apply to? Most farms have been passed down from generation to generation."
Hawkins’ main concern is how this program directly affects farmers. The program involves other industries including oilrigs, but those industries have ways to push costs onto others.
"When those in the oil industry have extra costs, they can pass them onto the consumer," says Hawkins. "Farmers, on the other hand, have to eat these costs. There is a set price for the market, so they end up eating the costs themselves."
The issue of communication is complicated, says Fred Whitaker, coordinator of Purdue Pesticide Programs at Purdue University. He says the task is a tough one, but possible with the help of other organizations.
"Generally speaking, those in Washington have a tough time reaching people out in rural America," says Whitaker. "And on the other side, people aren’t going to sit down to dinner and talk about government regulations. It has to involve those like myself and other groups with farmers’ interests in mind to get the word out."
Whitaker says that the effort is apparent though, and the EPA is working on making it easier for farmers to have quick access to information.
"[The EPA] is doing a great job at utilizing websites and the Internet," says Whitaker. "There is a load of information available to farmers at the touch of a finger."
Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association, says most farmers know they need to comply, and want to comply.
"There just hasn’t been a common sense, easy-to-use way to do that," says Payne.
That changed in early October when the EPA gave thumbs up to a web-based tool developed jointly by the Asmark Institute and The Fertilizer Institute. Designed to help growers and agriculture retailers comply with the SPCC rule can be accessed at www.asmark.org/mySPCC.