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Washington dairies lose economic challenge to Ecology rules

Pollution Control Hearings Board dismisses six of 18 complaints brought by farm groups, environmental organizations
Don Jenkins

Capital Press

Published on May 15, 2018 9:01AM

A lagoon holds manure at a dairy in Whatcom County, Wash. The Pollution Control Hearings Board will hear challenges by farm groups and environmental organizations to Department of Ecology rules for storing and spreading manure at a hearing set to begin May 21.

Don Jenkins/Capital Press

A lagoon holds manure at a dairy in Whatcom County, Wash. The Pollution Control Hearings Board will hear challenges by farm groups and environmental organizations to Department of Ecology rules for storing and spreading manure at a hearing set to begin May 21.

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A state panel has discarded a claim by farm groups that the Washington Department of Ecology illegally disregarded whether new manure-handing regulations will bankrupt dairies.

Ecology last year greatly expanded the number of dairies and other confined animal feeding operations that need a permit similar to ones issued to factories that discharge wastewater. Ecology says the CAFO permits will better protect groundwater and waterways from manure.

The Pollution Control Hearings Board ruled May 10 that the Washington State Dairy Federation and Washington Farm Bureau can’t raise the economic issue while appealing the regulations.

The board also tossed out two related claims that Ecology low-balled compliance costs and should have done more to ease the financial burden on dairies that employ fewer than 50 workers. The dairy federation estimates that more than 90 percent of the state’s dairies are below that threshold.

In all, the three-member board dismissed at Ecology’s request six of 18 complaints brought by either the farm groups or a coalition of environmental organizations led by Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. The board will hear the remaining dozen complaints at a hearing scheduled to begin Monday in Tumwater and last one week.

Farm groups are challenging the practicality and scientific basis of the rules. Meanwhile, environmental organizations allege the rules fall short of complying with state and federal clean water laws. The appeals have been combined into one hearing.

Ecology moved to dismiss some of the claims prior to the hearing, arguing the facts weren’t in dispute and that the law was on its side.

In addition to three claims by three groups, the board dismissed three challenges raised by environmental groups. The organizations complained that Ecology was insufficiently concerned about climate change, didn’t name the farms that needed permits and ceded too much oversight of dairies to the Department of Agriculture.

The board will still consider several complaints by Puget Soundkeeper and its partners that farmers should monitor water quality and obey strict limits on nitrate and phosphorous in fields.

The farm groups will argue that new manure lagoon standards and requirements for testing soils are unnecessary and impractical.

The farm groups had alleged that Ecology’s CAFO permit violated Washington’s Dairy Nutrient Management Act. The act calls for the state to provide a stable business climate for dairies. The board rejected that argument, finding that the act imposed “guidance and not legal requirements.”

The farm groups also complained Ecology didn’t consider the costs of smaller crops and fertilizer in weighing whether the benefits outweighed the expense of new limits on spreading manure. The board ruled that it would defer to Ecology’s expertise in deciding what to count.

The board also set aside a complaint that the rules will particularly burden the 92 percent of the dairies with fewer than 50 employees, the state’s definition of a small business.

The board agreed with Ecology that the department met its duty to soften the blow of new regulations by exempting dairies with fewer than 200 cows, unless the agency decides a small dairy is a “significant” polluter.



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