Dairy cows

Dairy cows graze on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. The USDA has extended the signup deadline for margin insurance.

A Washington health agency continues to craft new regulations for commercial farms by expanding an old rule that bars “stable manure” from fouling “populous districts.”

If the state’s Board of Health follows through, the modernized “Keeping Animals” rule would apply to livestock waste everywhere. Local authorities would be obliged to penalize farmers for odors, flies, rodents and other pests. Manure couldn’t be stored within 35 feet of a neighbor’s property or public road.

“This looks like something that’s going to compound regulations on agriculture,” Washington Cattlemen’s Association lobbyist Mark Streuli said. “It’s got us on the edge of our chairs.”

The board’s staff has been working on the rule on-and-off for a decade. Environmental groups have supported expanding the rule, arguing it’s necessary to protect human health.

Farm groups say other laws already regulate animal waste and that the health board’s policy direction conflicts with the state’s right-to-farm law that shields agriculture from nuisance lawsuits.

A new rule has not been formally proposed. A draft finished this month differed little from one that was circulated in June.

“We’ve been along a certain track of thinking,” said the board’s policy adviser, Stuart Glasoe, who’s been working on the rule.

Livestock and pet waste would need to be “contained or covered,” according to the draft rule. Animal waste couldn’t be stored within 100 feet of a drainage ditch, unless the ditch was uphill or behind a barrier, such as a levee.

Farmers could be fined for violating the law. Local health officials, police departments and sheriff’s offices must enforce board of health rules or themselves be fined, according to state law.

The current Keeping Animals rule exempts “manure on farms and isolated premises,” unless a health officer issues an order. The rule bars manure from accumulating where it could pollute drinking water.

The new rule could be much more encompassing. It would be particularly helpful to people who breathe air blowing from large farms, Friends of Toppenish Creek Executive Director Jean Mendoza said.

She said the draft rule was “probably adequate.”

According to the health board, some of the language in the Keeping Animals rule dates back to the 1920s.

The rule requires manure in stables in towns to be covered in a “watertight pit or chamber.” The manure must be removed at least once a week in the spring and summer. During the fall and winter, stables have to be cleaned often enough to satisfy a health officer.

Expanding the rule would fill “cracks” in local authorities’ ability to order manure removed, Glasoe said.

Glasoe said he’s heard few comments about how the rule would apply to pet waste. The discussion has been about livestock, he said. The rules would “not necessarily” be applied to manure lagoons on dairies, though “potentially it’s possible,” Glasoe said.

Glasoe said he’s aware of concerns that the rule will conflict with the right-to-farm law. “We certainly have tried to keep an eye on that,” he said.

Streuli said the draft rule is so broad it could be turned against normal farming practices. “Hello lawsuits, and here we go again,” he said.

The Department of Agriculture and Department of Ecology regulate manure to protect water and air quality. State law gives the health board the power to adopt rules related to disposing of animal waste and remains.

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