TUMWATER, Wash. — A late addition by the Washington Department of Ecology last year to manure-storage rules blindsided dairies and threatens to bankrupt some, an industry official told an appeals board Tuesday.
The rule increases the distance that manure in lagoons must be from groundwater, by several feet in some cases.
As a result, many lagoons, particularly in Western Washington, are out of line with Ecology’s standards, testified Dan Wood, executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation.
“Our experience is that when agencies, such as Ecology, label something as ‘deficient,’ that’s not the end of the conversation,” Wood said. “I think this is probably the biggest issue in this appeal.”
Ecology’s new rules for confined animal feeding operations particularly affect the state’s 230 dairies with 200 or more cows. The dairy federation and Washington Farm Bureau are appealing aspects of the rules to the state Pollution Control Hearings Board.
The board is simultaneously hearing complaints from environmental groups that the rules are too lax to protect surface water and groundwater. The hearing, expected to wrap up this week, is likely to be a step toward further court challenges.
Ecology’s standard for separating stored manure from groundwater departs from Natural Resources Conservation Service standards.
NRCS calls for at least 2 feet between the top of the clay lagoon liners and groundwater. In the final rules, Ecology set the minimum separation from the bottom of the liner.
Wood said that bringing a lagoon into compliance could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and that he’s heard from dairymen who say that could drive them out of business. “This is a major cost concern for a lot of producers,” he said.
Ecology had not included the requirement in preliminary written proposals, or mentioned it in meetings, Wood said.
The federation didn’t have a chance to comment, and its officials didn’t pick up on the departure from NRCS standards until farmers brought it to their attention, Wood said.
“Our first reaction was they (farmers) were misreading it,” he said. “We looked. Yes, indeed, it was there.”
Also Tuesday, Washington State University animal science professor Joe Harrison testified that testing groundwater at dairies was not needed, disputing a chief complaint by environmental groups that Ecology was negligent in not requiring monitoring wells.
Harrison, a longtime adviser to the dairy industry, said standard manure-handling practices, checked by fall soil tests, safeguard water,
“Those collectively, as a suite of practices, are protective of groundwater,” Harrison said.
Harrison acknowledged under cross-examination by environmental attorney Charlie Tebbutt that testing groundwater was the only way to be absolutely sure it isn’t polluted.
The Ecology rules are in addition to the state’s 20-year-old Dairy Nutrient Management Act. The act also regulates storing and fertilizing with manure, but is enforced by the state Department of Agriculture.