Legislature Tackles Dairy Pollution Bills Would Prevent Farmers From Discharging Manure Into State Waterways
Legislators are trying to lasso an industry some claim is among the greatest polluters of Washington rivers and streams - the dairy industry.
Lawmakers are considering a pair of bills that would prevent dairy farmers from discharging manure and its byproducts into state waterways.
They were prodded into action by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which discovered last year that Washington dairies are inspected so rarely that no one knows whether they comply with water-quality laws.
In one case, tests showed bacteria in a stream below a Mount Vernon dairy farm at a rate of 4.6 million parts per 100 milliliters. Acceptable levels are only 100 parts per 100 milliliters.
Critics contend milk producers have fallen victim to their own clout as the state’s second-largest agricultural industry.
“They’ve not had to play by the same rules as other industries for a long time,” said Josh Baldi, policy representative for the Washington Environmental Council.
This year’s renewed attention also reflects a national trend.
Urban encroachment, corporate farming and dwindling profit margins are pushing livestock owners to squeeze more animals onto less ground. In return, livestock farms increasingly are being explored as potential polluters.
In 1995, North Carolina hog farms were blamed for the deaths of millions of fish. Last year, Maryland poultry ranches were linked to a bacterium that may have made people sick near Chesapeake Bay. Some scientists believe dairy cows contributed to Wisconsin’s 1993 cryptosporidia outbreak, which killed 100 people.
“This is sort of the next frontier of environmental protection,” said Julie Hagensen, EPA assistant regional administrator.
Last month, residents sued several Yakima dairies, claiming they let manure drain from their farms into ditches. They mark the first lawsuits against Washington dairies under the federal Clean Water Act.
Fearing a rash of legal action, reluctant farmers spent a year negotiating waste-management legislation that includes regular inspections.
Portions of the package are expected to hit the House floor later this month with industry backing.
But the accord was an emotional blow for many Washington dairy farmers, whose morale has plummeted along with their numbers.
“There are bad actors out there; I don’t think anybody in this industry can deny that,” said Deer Park dairy farmer Kima Simonson. She manages some 200 cows with her husband while riding herd over four kids who need lifts to basketball tournaments, soccer games and ballet.
“But it’s survival time now.”
Statewide, dairy farms have dwindled from 1,400 to 819 in eight years, with another 30 percent expected to drop out within five years. Spokane and Stevens counties are down to roughly 40 farms - half the numbers of a decade ago.
Feed prices are up. Milk subsidies are down - and possibly headed out. Animals that once fetched $100 at auction, “I now have trouble giving away,” Simonson said.
“We’ve got families over here where the wife is working off the farm just to get enough income,” Simonson said. “It’s getting hard to make that milk check stretch.”
Still, farmers recognize that Washington lags behind some other states in regulating farm waste.
After floods in 1995 and 1996 sent manure into ditches in southern Idaho, that state threatened to yank farmers’ permits to sell milk if they didn’t prevent future discharges. Idaho’s agriculture department is following up with 6,000 inspections.
“Headlines that say ‘milk’ and ‘manure’ didn’t help sell our products,” said Marv Patten, head of the Idaho agency’s dairy program, which also promotes the industry.
Washington farmers and their legislative allies are no less sensitive.
With profits frequently leaner than their products, some farmers still grumble about milk being designated “2 percent fat” rather than “98 percent fat-free.”
During negotiations about one of the bills, the term “dairy waste”- a reference to products originating from cow manure - was changed to “dairy nutrients.”
“We’re trying to look at this in a positive way, get rid of the negative connotations,” said Spokane County dairy farmer Dick Ziehnert.
One controversial bill would have sealed state records of a farm’s accidental discharge into a waterway, provided the farmer corrected it within two weeks.
House Agriculture and Ecology Chairman Gary Chandler, R-Moses Lake, said his bill was not meant to shield farmers from publicity but to keep those acting in good faith from being sued.
“I think the farmers already are feeling under the gun,” said Chandler, a hay farmer himself.
But critics argued such lack of disclosure would be illegal and claim farmers can’t be sued successfully for making a single mistake.
“What you have to do is show continuous spills, a systemic weakness,” said Bill Bean, president of the Columbia Basin Institute, which helped organize citizens fighting the Yakima farmers. “No one could win a case under the Clean Water Act based on an accidental spill.”
The bill died in committee, but it reflects Washington dairy farmers’ apprehension.
Simonson, a graduate of Coeur d’Alene High School, is one of the lucky ones. When she and her husband took over their farm 12 years ago, it already had a good lagoon system to keep manure out of waterways.
Ziehnert, too, has a strong waste-management plan that he says actually has made for better crops and better yields.
But farmers less-equipped worry they’ll have to spend thousands of dollars to better manage their manure. That’s a fear the Spokane farmers understand.
“Dairy farmers are saying, ‘Whoa, I’m not making any money now. Why should I invest more?”’ Ziehnert said.
Environmentalists and lawmakers say they’re not unsympathetic. The problem has just gone unchecked too long.
“This is not about trying to drive these people out of business,” said Baldi. “We’ll know we’ve been successful if we’ve both ‘got milk’ and ‘got clean water.”’
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