Washington dairies win concession on new manure rules

Dairy cows in Whatcom County, Wash. The Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board has ruled that the state's manure lagoon standards should match those of the Natural Resources Conservation Service for the separation between the bottom of lagoon liners and groundwater.

Washington dairies scored a victory Thursday as an appeals panel told the Department of Ecology to revise its new manure-storage regulations to conform with Natural Resources Conservation Service standards for lagoons.

The ruling is particularly important for Western Washington dairies, which faced the prospect of having to lift NRCS-approved lagoon bottoms farther from groundwater. The Pollution Control Hearings Board ruled that Ecology failed to justify modifications that would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per lagoon.

“That would have been a killer for a lot of lagoons in Western Washington,” said Dan Wood, executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation. “I’m happy for the decision that NRCS standards need to be followed on lagoon liners.”

Ecology issued new rules for dairies with more than 200 cows last year. The rules could affect as many as 250 dairies that choose to apply for a confined animal feeding operation permit. A permit may provide some protection from government fines and lawsuits, but also comes with new rules on storing and spreading manure.

Environmental groups, led by Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, appealed the rules to the hearings board, arguing the permit terms were too weak to prevent manure from polluting waterways and groundwater.

The dairy industry appealed limits on spreading manure and requirements to test soils more often.

Complaints from both sides were combined and considered at a two-week hearing last spring.

The three-member appeals board upheld all of the rules, except the one that required at least 2 feet between the bottom of lagoon liners and groundwater. NRCS standards call for the separation to be measured from the top of the liner.

At a hearing last spring, the dairy industry offered testimony that the cost of raising the lagoons could cause some dairies to close.

“We’ll modify the permit based on the ruling,” Ecology spokeswoman Colleen Keltz said Friday.

The appeals board rejected a demand by environmental groups that dairies install monitoring wells to ensure manure wasn’t polluting groundwater. The board agreed with Ecology that permit requirements were enough to protect groundwater.

Puget Soundkeeper Executive Director Chris Wilke said environmental groups will have to review the ruling before deciding whether to take their objections to court.

“Right now it seems like a pretty uninformed opinion,” he said. “It doesn’t take into account the full pollution that is occurring.”

Ecology has issued only 24 permits so far, including 18 to dairies. Four beef cattle operations, one poultry farm and one heifer-raising operation have also obtained permits.

Wood said dairies have been waiting to see the outcome of the challenges to the rules before deciding whether to apply for a permit. “It’s going to be a farm-by-farm decision,” he said.

Only dairies that discharge pollutants into water are required to have a permit. Ecology’s position is that pollutants seep from all manure lagoons. “We hope that now that we have a ruling from (the appeals board) that it will give (animal operations) certainty about what’s going to be in the permit,” Keltz said.

The dairy industry did not win from the board any relief from new requirements to test the nitrate levels in fields in the spring, as well as current testing in the fall.

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