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Washington CAFO law attacked from all sides

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Washington dairies and environmental groups are challenging the Department of Ecology’s new manure-control law.

The dairy industry and environmental groups have come up with 19 legal challenges to the Washington Department of Ecology’s new manure-control law.

The Pollution Control Hearings Board, the forum for appealing Ecology actions, has scheduled a week-long hearing for Dec. 4-8 in Tumwater on the state’s Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation permits. The appeals did not keep the rules from taking effect in March.

“Ecology developed these permits with the best available science and broad stakeholder input,” department spokeswoman Jessica Payne wrote Monday in an email. “We believe they are protective of water quality and represent best practices for the facilities the permits will cover. Ecology stands by these permits.”

CAFO permit terms are a major battleground for farm groups and environmental organizations in Washington. Provisions will dictate for at least the next five years how dairies keep manure from polluting groundwater and surface water.

Previously, the state Department of Agriculture oversaw how dairies store and spread manure, and few dairies had CAFO permits issued by Ecology.

The expanded permit will require more soil testing, put more limits on fertilizing with manure and place more scrutiny on manure lagoons, even ones built to Natural Resources Conservation Service standards.

The Washington State Dairy Federation and Washington Farm Bureau dispute the science and economics behind the rules. A coalition of environmental groups allege Ecology has fallen short of upholding the federal Clean Water Act.

The two sides agreed to combine their grievances into one appeal and also agreed on a list of legal issues to raise.

One complaint by the environmental groups is that Ecology failed to identify the dairies that need CAFO permits.

According to Ecology, dairies that discharge pollutants into groundwater or surface water must have a permit. Since Ecology maintains that pollutants seep from manure lagoons, the rules potentially apply to all 229 dairies in the state with more than 200 cows. Smaller dairies are exempt unless Ecology determines they are a “significant” source of pollutants.

As of Monday, 16 dairies with a total of 37,170 mature cows and heifers had obtained permits, according to Ecology. The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service estimated Washington had 395,000 dairy cows and heifers last year.

According to Payne, agriculture department inspectors will notify farmers if they should apply for a permit. Ecology will follow up if the farmer doesn’t apply for a permit, she said.

The dairy industry alleges that Ecology’s disregard for NRCS standards and demand for more soil tests lacks scientific backing. The industry also alleges Ecology failed to consider reduced yields, loss of acreage and increased production and operating costs before adopting the rules.

Environmental groups allege Ecology should have set strict limits on residual nitrate and phosphorous levels in the soil and water. They also complain Ecology failed to mitigate against climate change and to provide enough information on the permit’s development to non-English speakers and communities of color.

The environmental groups involved in the appeal are the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, Community Association for Restoration of the Environment, Friends of Toppenish Creek, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance, Center for Food Safety and Re Sources for Sustainable Communities.

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