By Misty Green
According to experts in the beef industry, there are many positives to running a cattle farm, being an excellent producer of organic fertilizer, which can be used to improve soil fertility and crop yields. Cattle farming can also help to prevent soil erosion, particularly in hilly or mountainous areas, by reducing the amount of surface runoff.
However, cattle farms often slip under the radar of being an industry of one of the largest perpetrators of animal abuse in the world, also being a rampant polluter of the world’s waterways, which are vital sources of clean water for humans and local ecosystems.
So, how does farming cause water pollution? This issue is just beginning to rear its ugly head near Macon County, after officials with the State of Tennessee’s Department of Environment and Conservation conducted an investigation at a cattle farm located on Homer Bray Road and Mitchell Turner Road in Clay County, Tennessee. This investigation stemmed from a complaint stating concerns for downstream water quality in Line Creek, which runs into Barren River in the state of Kentucky.
Not staying on top of the contaminates that come with operating a cattle farm, the Browning Family is now in hot water with the state, after the inquiry of the complaint, discovered several violations, found to be producing unsustainable amounts of untreated manure that have been seeping into the groundwater and surrounding creek, however that was not all they found.
On September 7, 2023, a certified Notice of Violation was sent to Ms. Rita Nell Browning, trustee of the Stacy W. Browning Family Trust, which stated the following: On Wednesday, August 23, 2023, staff from the TDEC Division of Water Resources (DWR) Cookeville Environmental Field Office visited your cattle operation in Clay County… During this site visit, staff walked to Line Creek from Little Trace Creek Road, and observed cattle from your farm loitering in Line Creek. It was noted from Mitchell Turner Road that buzzards were observed flying over an area upgradient of Line Creek.
Subsequently, staff met with Deigo (your farm manager) to observe a cattle mortality disposal site, where it was noted that dead cattle and refuse were being disposed of in an open pit. This exposes stormwater to biological and chemical pollutants, which can migrate along with stormwater to Line Creek. As a result of this site investigation, a violation of the Tennessee Water Quality Control Act was noted.
Justification for this notice of violation: numerous cattle carcasses (evidenced by bone) and other waste materials have been placed upgradient of Line Creek and have not been secured from coming into contact with stormwater and this material(s) can migrate to the stream (Line Creek). Thus evoking TNWQCA69-3-114, causing pollution, or refusing to furnish information.
It is unlawful for any person to discharge any substance into the waters of the state or to place or cause any substance to be placed in any location where such substances, either by themselves or in combination with others, cause any of the damages as defined in 69-3-103, unless such discharge shall be due to an unavoidable accident or unless such action has been properly authorized. Any such action is declared to be a public nuisance.
In addition, it is unlawful for any person to act in a manner or degree that is violative of any provision of this part or of any rule, regulation, or standard of water quality promulgated by the board or of any permits or orders issued pursuant to the provisions of this part; or to fail or refuse to file an application for a permit as required in 69-3-108; or to refuse to furnish, or to falsify any records, information, plans, specifications, or other data required by the board or the commissioner under this part.
Required actions: Due to the number of cattle (approximately 1,700 as reported by Diego) that are maintained at your property, along with the evidence of cattle’s access to travel Line Creek, the Division is requesting that you submit an application for a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) NPDES permit. The application will need to include EPA Forms 1 & 2b, as well as a site-specific nutrient management plan (NMP) that meets TDEC Rule 0400-40-05-.14(10). Browning Cattle Farm was asked to respond to the Cookeville Environmental Field Office within 30 days of receipt of the notice of violation letter.
On September 7, TDEC issued an advisory telling the public to avoid contact with Trace Creek and Wilson Branch in Clay County, due to pathogens discovered in the water. The water contact advisory is issued for Trace Creek from the Old Gamaliel Road bridge to the Max Bear Road bridge.
TDEC Commissioner Greg Young explained they issued the advisory after finding pathogens in the water, and said they will continue to monitor the situation to ensure public safety.
According to Young, TDEC received several complaints regarding the impact on the water quality coming from Browning Farm, an unpermitted concentrated animal feeding operation. In August, TDEC collected pathogen samples throughout the watershed near the Hermitage Springs community, and based on the data collected, the advisory was issued. Ecoli samples collected on Trace Creek ranged from 3,840 MPN/100 ML to 141,460 MPN/100 ML. Also in August, Ecoli samples collected on Wilson Branch ranged from 740 MPN/100 ML to 241,960 MPN/100 ML. The data suggested the water contact advisory be issued as TDEC continues to investigate the matter.
The Tennessee Water Quality Control Act identifies the commissioner of TDEC as having the responsibility to inform the public when health risks from either water contact or fish consumption exceed acceptable levels.
TDEC inspects waters where good cause is shown that public health is threatened by pollutants in the waters.
There are many ways cattle farms, when sustainably managed, can achieve conservation benefits. Grazing maintains the health of the grasslands, improving soil quality with manure, while preserving open space and wildlife habitat. Additionally, carbon is sequestered in the grasses and soils of grazing lands. However, situations such as the one being produced by the Browning Farm, if left untreated, potentially threaten the livelihood of millions of people, eradicating entire ecosystems, and deepening the divide between the industry and its critics.
By Misty Green