Pollution-Control Ruling On Dairy Farm Permits a Big Deal?

Rich Appel, Appel Dairy; appeldairy@gmail.com; photos by Jayson Korthuis; jysnkrth@me.com

Farmers Say a Resounding, ‘Yes!’

“Vindication” is the word local farmers typically use to describe the Pollution Control Hearings Board ruling last October on the Department of Ecology permit that affects dairy farms. Dairy operators say that the ruling gives credibility to their claims of strong environmental performance.

In Whatcom County, and extending now to Seattle, a debate has been taking place between farm advocates and environmental activists about dairy farms and their effects on the environment.

Dairy critics claim dairy farms are some of the largest sources of pollution, fouling the water, harming fish, causing shellfish bed closures, and making people sick, or even causing the death of infants. Their solution to these serious problems has been to file lawsuits and pressure the Department of Ecology into imposing massive new regulations on dairy farms.

Dairy farmers, for their part, recognize that dairies have the potential to cause water-quality problems and, indeed, in the past they have been a significant cause of harm to fish and shellfish. But many laws and regulations have changed that over the last couple of decades, particularly since passage of the 1998 Dairy Nutrient Management Act.

Moreover, farmer stewardship has contributed to protecting the environment better, and even improving it. One strong indication is the reduced nitrate levels in wells nearest dairy farms. Other recent studies also provide proof of improvements.

When you have a he-said, she-said situation, who is to be believed?

Farmers have a lot at stake. Many would say their very existence is on the line. Environmental activists also have much at stake because of their credibility and their ability to secure donations essential to their future is affected by these claims.

For two weeks during late Spring of last year, the Pollution Control Hearings Board heard arguments from both sides on the hotly contested Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO). The Hearings Board consists of three lawyers, including one who specializes in environmental law, all appointed by Governor Jay Inslee. One of those specializes in environmental law.

Their job was to hear appeals filed by the environmental groups and the dairy community (working through the state Dairy Federation).

This CAFO permit is the tool the state uses to enforce water-quality laws and specifies what animal-farming operations must do and not do to protect water. The environmental groups said the permit issued by Ecology in 2017 didn’t go nearly far enough to protect water and therefore violated the law. The dairy community said Ecology went too far, particularly on how it changed the way manure lagoons were measured.

After more than four months of deliberation, the Board supported the dairy community’s position on the error Ecology made in how lagoons are measured. Ecology was “remanded” by law to change the permit to comply with national lagoon standards.

The big news for farmers was that each and every one of the arguments made by the environmental groups was fully and completely rejected. This applies to lagoons, to surface water monitoring, to groundwater monitoring, and a number of other claims.

How have the environmental groups responded? One—Jean Mendoza from Friends of Toppenish Creek in Yakima—commented that the Board was “uninformed.” Puget Soundkeeper Alliance said the board “made errors.”

But we farmers ask simply this: If their top advocate, an environmental attorney from Oregon known for suing dairy farms, couldn’t convince three lawyers on the board appointed by Governor Inslee—and one of those a fellow Oregon-educated environmental lawyer—why do they think they can convince anyone else? Whatcom farmers note with deep appreciation the decision of Bellingham-based RE Sources to withdraw from continuing this appeal.

The claims of pollution caused by dairy farms probably won’t go away, which means the work of setting the record straight also must go on. But we farmers do feel vindicated by this important but little-known ruling. And we believe our job of convincing the unconvinced will be much easier as a result.