State proposes more regulations for dairy farms

Louis Munoz milks cows at the Lenssen dairy farm June 27, 2013, north of Lynden. More dairies would be required to get a water quality permit under a new state Department of Ecology proposal.
Louis Munoz milks cows at the Lenssen dairy farm June 27, 2013, north of Lynden. More dairies would be required to get a water quality permit under a new state Department of Ecology proposal. The Bellingham Herald

Most dairies in Washington state would be required to get a water quality permit under a proposal the state Department of Ecology released Tuesday, August 11.

That’s because for the first time, the agency proposes treating seepage from manure storage lagoons as pollution.

The proposal has some in the agriculture industry wary of redundant regulations and increased costs, while environmental groups say that it still doesn’t go far enough to prevent pollution.

The permit applies to confined animal feeding operation, or CAFOs for short, a category that includes large dairies and feedlots for cattle, pigs and chickens.

In the past, the CAFO permit was required only if a large animal feeding operation had polluted a nearby body of water, such as if a runoff carried manure into a creek during a heavy rainstorm or a tractor pulling a manure tank tipped over in a ditch. Facilities with no demonstrated pollution were exempt.

Under the permit, operators must spell out steps they will take to prevent pollution.

But under a proposed update designed to improve protection for groundwater, facilities with manure lagoons with soil, clay and even most synthetic liners would also have to obtain the permit.

“We feel pretty strongly that all the science (on lagoons) is clear that they do have a fair amount of seepage and that seepage has only one place to end up for the most part, and that’s the groundwater,” said Bill Moore, Ecology’s water quality program manager. “Any facility with a lagoon is going to have to get coverage.”

Only those lagoons with two layers of synthetic lining and a leak detection system would be exempt from the proposed permit.

Only 10 of the state’s hundreds of livestock facilities had permits under the previous rules, which expired in 2011. Under the federal Clean Water Act, Ecology is required to update the permit every five years.

Manure pollution is a concern because bacteria, pathogens and nitrogen from animal waste can harm fish and wildlife in surface water and create health risks for people exposed to contaminated drinking water.

The proposal released Tuesday is part of a preliminary draft and Ecology is seeking public comment on it before it releases a formal proposal later this year.

Dan Wood, executive director of the Washington Dairy Federation, said Tuesday he needs more time to review the proposal with members before commenting in detail.

Broadly, he said, it’s important to the industry to get a new permit in place and to make sure it protects proprietary information and remains affordable and attainable.

The permit costs from $200 to $2,371 annually, depending on size of the operation.

“Preliminarily, it looks like they are on the right track to keeping it affordable and to gather information about conditions on the ground as the first step,” Wood said. “I’m sure we’re going to find some things we are concerned about, but on the surface it seems like a measured process.”

Rich Appel, spokesman for Whatcom Family Dairies, said they are also reviewing the proposal. The group represents the more than 100 dairy farmers in Whatcom County, according to its website.

“If new regulations build on our commitment to protect and enhance our shared water resource, we would view them positively. But, if they provide no real benefit while adding more costs, we will reach out to the public for help in opposing (the proposal),” Appel said in a written statement.

The process seems slow to Andrea Rodger Harris, an attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center who focuses on livestock pollution issues.

That’s because while most facilities with lagoons will be required to get the permit, they won’t be required to install synthetic liners.

“There’s no dispute that they are leaking; it’s a dispute as to how much and how fast,” she said. “But no matter how much, it’s illegal to discharge pollutants to the groundwater of the state and Ecology simply can’t allow them to do it.”

Moore said there is a difference between a leaking lagoon and whether or not the lagoon is leaking enough to pollute the groundwater. That’s what the agency hopes to assess by gathering information on lagoons through the proposed permit, he said.

And evidence suggests manure that’s over-applied to fields is a larger source of pollution to groundwater than leaking lagoons, Moore said.

The permit would also require annual soil sampling at CAFO fields to see if more manure is being applied than crops can use. If elevated levels are found, it wouldn’t be a violation, but the farmer would have to address the issue.

Many of the requirements for manure pollution prevention overlap with the nutrient management plans already required of dairies, under the state Department of Agriculture’s jurisdiction.

Moore said the two agencies are working together to make sure the requirements are consistent and streamlined. For dairies with good nutrient management plans in place, Ecology’s permit will mostly be a simple checklist, he said.

Ecology is collecting public comments on the proposal until Sept. 18. A final draft of the permit will be released for a second round of public review later this year, and the final permit is expected to be issued early next year.

Bellingham Herald Business Editor Dave Gallagher contributed to this report. Reach Dave at 360-715-2269 or dave.gallagher@bellinghamherald.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BhamHeraldBiz and on Facebook at BellinghamHeraldBusiness.