While it remains unclear whether state agencies will sign off on a controversial 30,000-cow dairy farm in Morrow County, that hasn’t stopped construction from moving quickly ahead.
The question now is whether Lost Valley Ranch broke the law by breaking ground well before it secured the necessary permits.
A coalition of health and environmental groups is calling on both the Oregon Department of Agriculture and Department of Environmental Quality to investigate, and plans to meet face-to-face with regulators Friday in Portland.
ODA and DEQ are jointly responsible for issuing what’s known as a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit, which outlines how Lost Valley will manage the roughly 187 million gallons of liquid manure generated each year and protect against groundwater contamination.
To date, the agencies have not issued a permit for Lost Valley. The proposed mega-dairy also has not received a construction stormwater permit, according to the coalition.
Wym Matthews, program manager for Confined Animal Feeding Operations with ODA, said they will address those concerns at Friday’s meeting.
“We will definitely be considering what our response should be,” Matthews said.
The coalition is also asking whether Lost Valley Ranch violated any laws by starting construction, even though it still hasn’t registered as a business with the Secretary of State’s Office. In fact, there is already a Lost Valley Ranch, LLC in Eastern Oregon, registered to Robert and Joan Wade of Condon.
Ivan Maluski, policy director for Friends of Family Farms — one of a dozen groups in the coalition — said the dairy is not only a threat to the environment and small farms, but is apparently operating outside the rules.
“It suggests the company perhaps doesn’t take the permits seriously,” Maluski said. “That’s very problematic as well.”
Other coalition members include: the Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club; the Center for Biological Diversity; Columbia Riverkeeper; Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility; WaterWatch of Oregon; Food & Water Watch; Socially Responsible Agriculture Project; the Center for Food Safety; the Humane Society of the United States; Friends of the Columbia River Gorge; and Humane Oregon.
California dairyman Greg te Velde is trying to develop Lost Valley Ranch on approximately 7,000 acres of the former Boardman Tree Farm. He did not comment on the coalition’s complaints, except to say the company is working through the permitting process.
Te Velde did say they have built milk barns and stalls on site. He did not say exactly how much money has been spent so far, but that it was “a lot.”
Lost Valley Ranch has garnered significant public interest since te Velde applied for the confined animal feeding operation, or CAFO, permits in August 2016. For the last 15 years, te Velde has run Willow Creek Dairy on land leased from nearby Threemile Canyon Farms, the state’s largest dairy with a whopping 70,000 cows.
When the Boardman Tree Farm sold a year ago, te Velde jumped at the opportunity to expand. Willow Creek Dairy currently trucks 70,000 gallons of milk every day to Tillamook Cheese at the Port of Morrow.
In his CAFO permit application, te Velde describes a closed-loop system with liquid manure stored in six main lagoons. The nitrogen-rich wastewater would then be used to irrigate 5,900 acres of farmland, growing feed for the dairy’s own cattle. Whatever is left over would be used to make animal bedding or transferred off site.
However, the coalition has spearheaded a campaign urging the state to deny the dairy permits. More than 4,200 comments have poured in on the proposal, which Matthews said are still being processed before a final decision is made.
“The agencies are working diligently to get that done,” he said.
The coalition commissioned its own aerial photos of Lost Valley Ranch last year, estimating that construction began sometime in spring or summer of 2016 and is at least 70 percent finished.
On Nov. 1, 2016, ODA did instruct Lost Valley to stop building its wastewater system without the CAFO permit, since those need to be inspected and approved by the agency prior to use. Matthews said the dairy did comply with that advisory, though there are other structures the state can’t prohibit them from building.
“We’re trying to be very specific about things they can’t construct,” he said.
Matthews said potential actions against Lost Valley could include additional citations of non-compliance or civil penalties, if they determine Lost Valley broke any laws..