Applicator's  Information





Today's farmer feeds more than 100 people with the safest, most abundant, affordable food supply in the world. Farmers are the original environmental stewards. Unfortunately, we now recognize that some farm activities can have an unexpected impact on the land, such as environmental contamination. Pollution is divided into two types: point source and non-point source. Point source pollution is that which can be traced to one point at which a contaminant entered the environment, such as a leaking storage tank. Non-point source pollution results from relatively low levels of contamination over a large area. When pollution from farming occurs, it is usually of the non-point source type. Normal widespread everyday activities, such as pesticide application and manure spreading can have the potential to cause non-point source pollution. Such contamination from one farm may not impact the environment severely; however, non-point source pollution from several farms in the area over the years may have a noticeable effect on the groundwater, surface water, wildlife, and productivity of the land. We also now recognize that some farm activities can have an unexpected impact on farm workers. The EPA Worker Protection Standards were written to protect these individuals. 

This manual is designed to give the small farmer a brief overview of the U.S.- Environmental Protection Agency (U.S.-EPA) laws and programs that address environmental pollution from farming activities and farm worker safety. Some federal regulations only apply after a threshold is reached. For specific details, the reader should consult with local agencies, such as state departments of agriculture, state departments of environmental regulation, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and county agricultural extension offices. Local agencies may have additional regulations with which the small farmer must comply. Your state cooperative extension system can help you decide which local agency has jurisdiction in your situation and provide additional information to assist you in compliance. 


Farming activities that may impact the environment or farm workers are presented in a table with the potential impact of that activity and the U.S.-EPA law that serves to protect the environment or farm worker. An overview of these laws is given in the second section of the manual. The reader should consult the overview before conducting each activity on the farm to ensure that he/she is not adversely affecting the environment or farm workers. The US-EPA will revise this manual as needed. Your input will help! At the end of this manual is a response box with three questions:
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U.S.-EPA laws that are discussed in this manual are:

  • Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA
  • Clean Water Act (CWA)

  • and the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) 
  • Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA
  • Worker Protection Standards (WPS
  • Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA
  • Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA/Superfund
  • Endangered Species Act (ESA
  • Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA
  • Clean Air Act (CAA
  • Emergency Planning & Community Right to Know (EPCRA
  • Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA


Operation  Situation  Potential Impact  Laws 

Bring land
into production
Clearing wood lot Destroy wildlife habitat ESA
Removing vegetation Soil erosion via wind, water CWA, SDWA, CZMA
Digging out trunks, shrubs Soil erosion, silting in streams, 
change course of waterways
Burning unwanted vegetation Air pollution CAA
Converting wetland Facilitate flooding, destroy 
wildlife habitat

Constructing / maintaining buildings Services for water/ sewage Contaminate ground or surface water CWA, SDWA, CZMA
Old transformer present PCB contamination TSCA
Demolishing structure Asbestos disposal  Soil, ground water contamination RCRA

Underground storage tanks Petroleum leakage Soil, groundwater contamination RCRA
Disposal of used motor oil Spills Soil, ground water contamination RCRA

Farm laborers on site Serving piped water to farm workers. Microbial and nitrate contamination SDWA
Agricultural workers performing hand labor in fields Exposure to pesticides WPS
Pesticide handlers mixing/ loading/applying Exposure to pesticides WPS

Preparing the land Tilling soil Soil erosion from wind or rain, Silt in waterways CWA, SDWA, CZMA
No-till practiced Herbicide contamination FIFRA
Fertilizer leaching from storage / application Surface and Groundwater Nitrogen Contamination CWA, SDWA, CZMA

Crop protection Pesticide highway spills Soil and water contamination FIFRA, CWA, SDWA,CZMA
Improper pesticide storage Soil and water contamination, Well head contamination EPCRA, FIFRA, CWA, SDWA, CZMA
Improper pesticide handling/application  Soil and water contamination FIFRA, CWA, SDWA, CZMA
Drift, over-application Endangered species, off-target species injury ESA, FIFRA
Improper pesticide & container disposal Soil and water contamination RCRA, FIFRA, CWA, SDWA, CZMA, CERCLA/ superfund,
Excessive or improper cultivation Soil erosion  CWA, SDWA, CZMA

Irrigation / Chemigation Backflow Groundwater contamination CWA, SDWA, CZMA
Runoff Surface, groundwater contamination, soil erosion CWA, SDWA, CZMA
Drainage ditches, farm ponds Herbicide application for weed Control Surface, groundwater contamination, off-target species injury FIFRA, CWA, SDWA, CZMA

Plant growth control Improper plant growth regulator applications Soil and water contamination FIFRA, CWA, SDWA, CZMA
Burning unwanted vegetation Air pollution CAA

Bee keeping Improper use of miticide protectants Soil and water contamination FIFRA, CWA, SDWA, CZMA

Harvest Agricultural workers harvesting Exposure to pesticides WPS
Treating stored grain Soil and water contamination FIFRA, CWA, SDWA, CZMA
Silage storage Runoff CWA, SDWA, CZMA
Preparing fields for dormancy Crop residue removal, fall tillage Soil erosion from bare land CWA, SDWA, CZMA

Animal Production Improper manure storage/ spreading Water contamination from nitrate and bacteria runoff or leaching CWA, SDWA, CZMA
Feed lot runoff Water contamination from nitrate and bacteria CWA, SDWA, CZMA
Improper carcass disposal Water contamination from bacteria CWA, SDWA, CZMA
Improperly maintained poultry waterers Run off, fly control problems CWA, SDWA, CZMA
Insecticide applications Soil and water contamination FIFRA, CWA, SDWA, CZMA
Improper disposal of milk parlor wastes Soil and water contamination CWA, SDWA, CZMA
Overgrazing Soil erosion CWA, SDWA, CZMA
Improperly designed feedlots Water contamination from runoff, livestock allowed to enter water bodies CWA, SDWA, CZMA

Aquaculture Water system not closed Escaped fish upset balance of nature ESA
Discharge water from system Surface and groundwater Contamination CWA, SDWA, CZMA
Disposal of dead fish Surface and groundwater Contamination CWA, SDWA, CZMA


This section gives an introduction and a general description of EPA laws and programs that could apply to small farming activities. It is not meant to be used as a compliance tool. Most federal laws are enforced at the state level through local legislation. The reader must consult appropriate state and local agencies to obtain details of implementing regulations. Those agencies will provide the farmer with the full text of federal law and state statutes and regulations. Your county agricultural extension agent can help you determine which local agency has jurisdiction in your situation. 


The goal of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) is to protect public health by establishing safe limits for contaminants in tap water. Public water systems may not deliver water exceeding maximum contaminant levels. The law is intended to regulate the operation of public water systems, rather than the activities of individual polluters. However, any activity that introduces contaminants into a source of drinking water is within the scope of the law. This could include many farm activities, such as fertilizer use, pesticide application and land clearing. 

The SDWA requires farmers with agricultural drainage wells (class V) to furnish inventory information to the State. In general, if a well is deeper than it is wide, the State could require an individual well permit. Individual states may establish Comprehensive State Groundwater Protection Programs to protect underground sources of drinking water. Your state may require installation of best management practices on your farm. A farmer cannot inject any contaminant into an underground source of drinking water if that source feeds into a well and if the contaminant may cause a violation of any primary drinking water regulation, or may adversely affect the health of people. An irrigation back-flow may constitute underground injection and thus fall within the SDWA, if it results in contamination reaching subsurface water. 

If a farm either serves piped water to an average of 25 people or has more than 15 service connections for more than 59 days/ year, then provision of drinking water that meets regulations is required. This may affect farmers with their own source of drinking water, such as a well, who provide that drinking water to contract labor. For the most part, the primary impact will require farms to sample for microbiological and nitrate based on a schedule established by the local agency. 


The objective of the Clean Water Act (CWA) is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters by preventing point and non-point source pollution. Under the CWA, assistance is provided to publicly owned treatment works to improve wastewater treatment, and maintain the integrity of wetlands. 

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are required to obtain a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permit. Contact your state regulatory agency to determine if you meet the definition of a CAFO. 

Section 404 of the CWA protects wetlands. It establishes a permit program to regulate the discharge of dredged or fill materials into the waters of the U.S. Activities exempted from regulation include all those associated with normal farming, forestry, and ranching. Exempted activities are maintenance of serviceable structures, stock ponds or irrigation ditches, and farm roads. These exemptions hold only if the discharge does not change a water's use or impair the water's flow or circulation. Draining for the purposes of agriculture production is also exempted. 

Prior converted croplands are not wetlands under Section 404 of the CWA. A farmer should consult with the local Corps of Engineers office to determine if ongoing or planned activities occurring in wetlands are regulated under the CWA. A farmer should also check with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) before clearing, draining, or manipulating any wet areas on a farmer's land to make sure that benefits are maintained. NRCS has sole authority for identifying wetlands on agricultural lands. 


The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) regulates the sale and use of pesticides. It distinguishes general-use pesticides from restricted-use pesticides (RUP). RUP's are pesticides that, even when applied according to label directions, may cause unreasonable damage to the environment or injury to the applicator if additional regulations and restrictions were not enforced. Therefore, RUP's may be applied only by certified and licensed applicators or by those working under their supervision. Most states administer a written exam for certification and require recertification at regular intervals. 

FIFRA prohibits pesticide handling activities that would harm humans or the environment. Applicators must transport, store, mix, load, apply and dispose of empty containers and waste pesticide in a manner that does not cause point source pollution. During any one of these activities, leaks and spills can introduce pesticides into surface or groundwater. FIFRA recommends that storage sites be chosen to minimize the chance for leaching into groundwater. Facilities should be dry and well-ventilated. Chemicals should be separated by category and kept on non-absorbent shelving. Food, feed, and business products should not be allowed in the pesticide storage area. The door should have locks and warning signs. 

FIFRA requires that all pesticides sold or distributed in the U.S. be registered by the EPA. Individual states also require state registration. Provisions are made in FIFRA for pesticide registrations during agricultural emergencies and for special local needs. FIFRA establishes the pesticide label as the legal document regulating pesticide handling. Use of each registered pesticide must be consistent with the use directions, pre-harvest interval, and restricted entry interval given on the label or labeling. It is illegal to apply a pesticide to a crop or site that is not listed on the label. 

Under the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetics Act, EPA establishes Maximum Residue Levels, called tolerances, for each pesticide on each commodity. Applicators and/or producers can be subject to prosecution under FIFRA if food or feed have pesticide residues which exceed the set tolerance for that pesticide. The affected commodity can be subject to seizure. 


The objective of the Worker Protection Standards (WPS) is to protect agricultural workers from exposure to pesticides. The WPS covers pesticides that are used in the production of agricultural plants on farms, forests, nurseries, and greenhouses. Under the WPS, farmers are required to take steps to reduce the risk of pesticide-related illness and injury if the farmer uses agricultural pesticides and employs workers or pesticide handlers who are exposed to such pesticides. To ensure that employees will be informed about exposure to pesticides, the WPS requires: pesticide safety training for employees, display of a pesticide safety poster, access to labeling information and access to specific information on the pesticides in a central location. Decontamination supplies must be located within one-quarter mile of workers or handlers. Water, soap, and single use towels are the minimum requirements. Farmers must provide transportation to a medical facility in the event of a pesticide related emergency. 


The Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA) controls the treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste as well as the disposal of municipal solid waste. It also regulates the storage of petroleum and other products in underground storage tanks. Pesticide product, when applied according to the label, is not classified as a hazardous waste. However; most pesticides, containers, and residues can become hazardous wastes. Fortunately, the farmer can take steps to divert these potential hazardous wastes into solid waste or useful product. Disposal of hazardous waste on a farm could subject the farmer to significant responsibility. 

A waste can be any solid, liquid or containerized gas that you no longer use, and either throw away, recycle or store. A waste is a hazardous waste if it is ignitable, corrosive, reactive, or toxic. Many pesticide wastes are classified as hazardous wastes under these criteria. Individuals and businesses who create hazardous waste are called hazardous waste generators. There are three categories of hazardous waste generators: 

Conditionally exempt small quantity generators. 
Generators of no more than 220 pounds or 25 gallons of hazardous waste in any calendar month. This waste may include un-rinsed pesticide containers, pesticide residues, unwanted product, or contaminated debris resulting from cleanup or a spill. 
Small quantity generators. 
Generators of more than 220 and less than 2,200 pounds or 25 to 300 gallons of hazardous waste in any calendar month. 
Large quantity generators. 
Generators of more than 2,200 pounds or 300 gallons of hazardous waste in any calendar month.
If you are a small quantity or large quantity generator, there are stringent regulations with which you must comply. If you are a conditionally exempt small quantity generator, you must:
  1. Identify all hazardous waste you generate. 
  2. Send these wastes to a permitted facility. 
  3. Keep certain records.
Hazardous waste that is being legitimately recycled, reused, or reclaimed is not subject to the hazardous waste management regulations. In other words, a pesticide is not a waste until you decide that you can no longer use it. Spilt pesticide can generally be recovered and used according to the label if the spill is handled with absorbent products that can be sprayed from a nozzle or spread on the land. The spilt material must be applied uniformly at no more than the labeled rate. Empty pesticide containers become solid waste after triple or jet rinsing. Rinse water from containers and spray rigs is not waste, if applied to a labeled site. However, if a farmer buries contaminated containers on site or fails to clean up a spill, he/she could be subject to hazardous waste generator requirements. For food crops, farming can occur on land where hazardous materials are applied as long as the farmer gets a permit from the EPA regional administrator. The farmer must demonstrate that there is no substantial risk to human health caused by the growth of such crops. 

A storage tank is classified as "underground" if greater than ten percent of its volume is beneath the surface. Underground storage tanks and their associated piping holding less than 1,100 gallons of motor fuel for non-commercial purposes, tanks holding less than 110 gallons, tanks holding heating oil used on the farm, and septic tanks are excluded from RCRA regulations. Also exempted are surface impoundments, ponds, pits, lagoons, storm and wastewater collection, flow-through processing tanks, and tanks located in basements. RCRA requires that the state or local government be notified of the existence of an underground storage tank that is not exempt. Leaking tanks must be reported to local authorities regardless of capacity or exemption. 

Farmers who generate an average of 25 gallons or less per month of used oil from vehicles or machinery per calendar year are exempt from RCRA regulations. Farmers exceeding 25 gallons are required to store it in tanks meeting underground or above ground technical requirements and use transporters with EPA authorization numbers for removal from the farm. Storage in unlined surface impoundments (wider than they are deep) is banned. 


The goal of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA/Superfund) is to clean up inactive hazardous waste sites that threaten human health or the environment. Under CERCLA, EPA can recover costs of the cleanup from those individuals or businesses who caused the contamination. This includes the generators of the waste, transporters, and current or past owners or operators of the facility. Liability under CERCLA is retroactive. If the responsible parties can not be found, CERCLA provides a fund, The Hazardous Substances Superfund, which will pay for the cleanup. Improper storage, application, and disposal of pesticides and fertilizers could create a hazardous waste site on the farm. When pesticides are mixed and spray rigs loaded at the same location over a period of time, the soil may become contaminated. However, if a hazardous waste site is created on the farm from the proper use of fertilizers or pesticides according to the label, CERCLA exempts the farmer from cost of cleanup. Often the cost of cleanup exceeds the value of the land. Lending institutions could choose to not become involved with farms that may be contaminated with agrichemicals. 


The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was written to protect members of endangered and threatened species. It is unlawful to harm, harass, wound or kill any animal listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Habitat disturbance or removal through land clearing impacts breeding, feeding and sheltering of wildlife. Pesticide application introduces toxic chemicals into wildlife environments. If these practices adversely impact members of threatened or endangered species, they are illegal under the ESA. The pesticide applicator should consult the product label for specific use restrictions. Farmers should not allow pesticides and fertilizers to run off target areas into wildlife habitat. 


The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) regulates the distribution and sale of new chemicals and existing chemicals when they pose an unreasonable risk to health or to the environment. TSCA prohibits the use of PCB transformers in areas that could affect food or feed. 


The objective of the Clean Air Act (CAA) is to protect human health, welfare, and the environment by maintaining and improving the quality of the air through the development of standards for gasses and particulate matter, such as dust. Tilling, harvesting, and fertilizer application can introduce particles into the air. Feedlot dust can contribute to air pollution in the community. Noxious odors can develop from manure use. For the most part, farming activities do not fall under the scope of the CAA. State agencies, however, may have more restrictive regulations. Odors that are caused by improper management may result in penalties. 


The objective of Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know (EPCRA) is to allow state and local planning for chemical emergencies. Each state must establish a State Emergency Response Commission which must then establish Local Emergency Planning Districts and appoint committees for each district. The resulting committees are known as Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPC's). EPCRA includes five activities which impact businesses: emergency planning notification, emergency release notification, material safety data sheets reporting, hazardous chemical inventory reporting and toxic chemical release reporting. Individual states may have additional requirements. 

Businesses which store threshold amounts of chemicals subject to OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard are required to submit information to LEPC's. This will allow state and local authorities to facilitate emergency planning and response. Farms that use pesticides may be subject to the notification requirements of the law. EPA has developed a list of "extremely hazardous substances" which includes numerous pesticides. If a farm stores the threshold amount of an extremely hazardous pesticide, notification of this fact must be made to the state. Material Safety Data Sheets and documents showing the location and amount of chemicals present at the facility must be given to the LEPC and the local fire department. 

Notification is also required for emergency releases of hazardous chemicals into the atmosphere, surface water or groundwater. When pesticides are used according to the label, the application is exempt from this notification requirement. 


The goal of the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) is to protect the natural resources along our nation's coasts. It controls sources of non-point pollution which could impact coastal water quality. The CZMA defines coastal states as those states along the Atlantic, Pacific, or Arctic Oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, Long Island Sound, or the Great Lakes. These states must develop non-point source pollution control programs for their coastal areas. Programs must be in conformity with management procedures established by EPA. Farmers who use pesticides and live in coastal states should consult with local agencies to determine if their farm land is part of the state's coastal zone and if their farming activities violate the CZMA. 

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Dr. Susan P. Whitney