Washington environmental regulators have released new permit rules aimed at reducing the amount of manure pollution that gets into rivers, lakes and other bodies of water from large dairy farms and other animal feedlots.
The rules will change the regulatory landscape for the state's 230 dairies with more than 200 cows, as well as other so-called concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. Embracing the rules may shield dairies from government fines or lawsuits by environmental groups, but will mean taking on new obligations with uncertain costs, The Capital Press reported.
"Every farmer will look at this very differently," Jay Gordon, policy director for the Washington State Dairy Federation, told The Capital Press. "Some will sleep better at night knowing they won't get sued, or at least are less likely to get sued. Others will say, 'Why do I need this?' It means more regulations, more paperwork and more burdens. We're very concerned about that."
But environmental groups say the rules don't go far enough and fail to protect drinking water. Environmental groups had pushed for dairies to line manure lagoons with synthetic material and install wells to monitor groundwater, steps the Washington Department of Ecology was unwilling to take, The Capital Press reported.
"Ecology was presented with an unprecedented opportunity to protect the environment and public health," said Andrea Rodgers of the Western Environmental Law Center. "It is outrageous that Ecology has given permission for industrial agricultural facilities to dump pollution into our drinking water."
The groups said that hand application of manure, ponds used to store manure, compost areas and cow pens are significant sources of pollution, but Ecology failed to include measures in the permit to prevent such pollution.
About 200 dairy farms could be required to get the new water-quality permit. Smaller dairies are exempt. About 10 concentrated animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs, were required to have the permit under the older rules.
Nitrates are a problem when manure which contains nitrogen is applied to fertilize crops or when manure stored in ponds seeps into groundwater. Bacteria from animal waste can also foul shellfish beds and create health risks for people.
Ecology will offer two versions of the permit, a concession to the dairy industry and opposed by environmental groups.
One permit will be for dairies that discharge pollutants into groundwater and surface water. Because the federal Clean Water Act covers surface water, environmental groups unhappy with Ecology's enforcement could sue dairies that have this permit. The other permit will regulate groundwater discharges and wouldn't be subject to enforcement through third-party lawsuits.