Local health and law enforcement officials would be obligated to enforce new manure-storage rules under a proposal circulated by the Washington State Board of Health.
The board plans to rewrite an old regulation prohibiting “stable manure” from piling up in “populous districts,” possibly extending the rule to every dairy, feedlot and livestock owner in the state.
According to a draft, the rule would prohibit storing manure within 100 feet of a drainage ditch or 35 feet of neighboring property. Manure would have to be contained or covered to control odors, flies, rodents and other pests.
The rule would add to manure-control regulations already set by the state Departments of Agriculture and Ecology. Unlike those agencies, the health board doesn’t have field inspectors, but state law orders local officials to enforce board rules or face fines.
The health board’s policy adviser, Stuart Glasoe, described the proposal as a “very early, preliminary draft.” He said a formal proposal may be out within a month. “It’s very much a work in progress,” he said.
The health board has worked on rewriting the brief, circa 1920s “Keeping Animals” rule on-and-off since 2009. The board raised the subject in earnest in 2013, provoking an inconclusive clash between farm and environmental groups.
To restart the effort, the board’s staff wrote a background report last year. The report recommended the rule focus on “smaller-scale animal waste” and let WSDA and Ecology lead on regulating large farms.
The recommendation, however, added that “the rule should not necessarily be limited in scale and could appropriately be applied to larger operations and impacts when needed.”
So far, the board’s staff has produced a rule that’s too broad and conflicts with the state’s right-to-farm law, Washington Farm Bureau director of government relations Tom Davis said.
The rule could expose farms to overzealous and uneven enforcement, and provide new grounds for lawsuits, he said. Existing state laws protect water and air, and health hazards such as flies and rodents can be handled by local ordinances, he said.
“All of this is covered. It’s not like the Board of Health is the first to think, ‘Hey, we need to manage manure storage,’” Davis said. “The Board of Health is not an expert on agriculture, but now they’re trying to exert itself into this issue.
“It it’s pet waste, knock yourself out. Hobby farms, we could live with that. But if (the health board) wants to address commercial farm operations, that’s where we have a problem,” Davis said.
Exempting commercial farms from the rule would be “totally unacceptable,” said Jean Mendoza, executive director of Friends of Toppenish Creek, an environmental group that has joined in lawsuits against Yakima County dairies.
“Our fear is that at the last minute that exemption will be put in,” she said.
The health board has 10 members — the secretary of health and nine appointed by the governor. The Legislature has given the board broad authority to adopt rules related to public health.
She disputed the stance of farm groups, which argue livestock operations are adequately regulated by WSDA and Ecology. “The only people who understand public heath are people from public health,” she said.
Glasoe said the rule’s reach will be an important issue. “Nobody has made a cogent argument about where you draw the line and why,” he said.