ATLANTA - Georgia could ease the pollution rules on large hog farms without risking more harm to streams and rivers, the state's top environmental regulator said Tuesday.
The director of the Environmental Protection Division, Judson Turner, told the Board of Natural Resources he supported a plan that would allow farmers to raise more pigs before they would be forced to follow expensive, stricter rules to prevent manure from being washed into waterways. A vote on the plan is expected in December.
Under the proposal, the tougher rules would kick-in for farmers with more than 12,500 pigs, instead of the current 7,500 pigs for animals weighing 55 pounds or more. The same threshold for hogs weighing less than 55 pounds would rise from 30,000 to 50,000 pigs.
"That is a number that Georgia ... can allow for some modest growth in the hog industry without greater risk to the environment," Turner told board members during a meeting. He disputed that larger farms would necessarily pollute more, noting that larger farms may have more money, staff and experience to meet environmental standards.
The public would get a chance to comment on the proposal before the board decides whether to adopt it.
A coalition of environmental groups, including the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Sierra Club and the Georgia River Network, are urging environmental officials not to loosen the standards, saying it will lead to more pollution.
Georgia adopted tougher pollution rules for the hog industry in 1999 after Hurricane Floyd dumped nearly two feet of rain over North Carolina, flooding lagoons that farmers used to store hog manure and washing that waste into nearby waterways.
"The damage from the hog (farms) and waste lagoons may have been mitigated if North Carolina had the strong rules that Georgia currently has in place," the environmental groups said in a joint letter.
The hog farming industry says it is unfair to have two separate regulations, one for hogs and one for other livestock.
The rules force larger hog farms to drill test wells, install airtight caps over manure lagoons and inject manure beneath the surface of the ground, rather than spraying it as fertilizer over crops. Officials at Georgia Pork Producers Association say farmers could not follow those requirements and still produce pork at market prices, effectively blocking industry growth.