Don Jenkins/Capital Press
TUMWATER, Wash. — An eight-day hearing on the Washington Department of Ecology’s new manure-management rules ended Thursday with the agency defending itself against varied attacks by the dairy industry and environmental groups.
Ecology’s attorney, Phyllis Barney, asked the Pollution Control Hearings Board to uphold rules that will require dairies with more than 200 cows to obtain pollution-control permits from Ecology.
“Ecology’s permits when complied with are protective of water quality,” Barney said.
The Washington State Dairy Federation and Washington Farm Bureau, and a coalition of environmental groups are appealing aspects of Ecology’s rules. The board is the first stop to challenge Ecology decisions.
Farm groups allege some rules are unnecessary and burdensome, particularly one that would prohibit manure lagoons built to federal standards. Environmental groups say Ecology’s faults include failing to require synthetic liners in lagoons and on-farm wells to monitor whether manure is polluting groundwater. The hearing continued the long-running and high-stakes battle between dairies and environmental groups in Washington.
The lead attorney for environmental groups, Charlie Tebbutt, accused Ecology of putting the dairy industry over clean water. He asked the hearings board to order Ecology to redo the rules.
“You have the opportunity to be on the right side of history,” he said.
“Ecology has utterly failed the people of Washington,” Tebbutt said. “Ecology has fiddled while Washington burns with manure contamination.”
He criticized Ecology director Maia Bellon for not defending the rules at the hearing. “She didn’t have the guts to testify,” Tebbutt said.
Administrative Judge Heather Francks last month denied a motion to force Bellon to testify. Francks agreed with Ecology’s attorneys that Bellon didn’t have any information that couldn’t be provided by other agency employees.
“It’s atypical for the agency director to testify at a hearing like this. The water-quality program staff who wrote the permit are the appropriate ones to testify, and they’ve been available throughout the proceedings,” an Ecology spokeswoman said Thursday in an email.
In closing arguments, the dairy industry’s attorney, Elizabeth Howard, reviewed testimony about how dairies handle manure now to prevent water pollution. “We’ve heard that dairies are proactive. We’ve also heard that dairies are highly regulated,” she said.
The dairy industry’s chief complaint is that Ecology deviated without warning from Natural Resources Conservation Service standards for manure lagoons.
NRCS standards require the top of clay liners to be at least 2 feet above groundwater. Ecology will require 2 feet of separation from the bottom of the liners. The change could make many dairies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to raise lagoons, according to the industry.
Dairies did not have a chance to comment on the stricter lagoon standard before it was adopted.
On Wednesday, Bill Moore, the Ecology official who oversaw the development of the rules, testified that the department did not consider whether the potential costs of complying with the standard were reasonable.
“If we’d known that was going to have a significant economic impact, it may have changed our analysis, yes,” he said.
Ecology said more space between stored manure and the water table will better protect groundwater. Howard defended the NRCS standards. “Their goal is to design standards workable for folks on the ground, but protective of natural resources,” she said.
Ecology’s rules add to regulations enforced by the state Department of Agriculture. The state has 230 dairies with 200 or more cows. Ecology has so far issued 23 permits. Witnesses testified that dairies are waiting to see the outcome of the appeals before applying.