Oregon bills could hurt the state’s dairy farmers

Read the original article by Tracy Loew at statemanjournal.com here.

Oregon would have the toughest dairy laws in the nation if two bills up for Legislative consideration next year are adopted.

The legislation was proposed in response to a regulatory disaster at Lost Valley Farm, a mega-dairy in Eastern Oregon that was allowed to open before completing construction, and was subsequently cited and fined for more than 200 environmental violations.

Critics say that situation showed the state’s permitting process, environmental oversight and enforcement powers are inadequate.

“Lost Valley showed us how horribly wrong things can go given our current laws,” said Amy van Saun, staff attorney at the Center for Food Safety in Portland.

Tami Kerr, executive director of the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association, said she could not comment until she had more time to examine the bills. But she said that the situation at Lost Valley was not representative of dairies across Oregon.

Bills would impact dairies with over 2,500 cows

The proposals would apply to large dairies, defined as those with at least 2,500 cows, or those with at least 700 mature cows that do not get seasonal access to pasture.

Lost Valley is permitted to have 30,000 cows. It’s close to Threemile Canyon Farms’three dairies, which together have 70,000 cows. All supply the nearby Tillamook Cheese factory.

Both bills declare large dairies to be industrial, rather than agricultural or farming operations. Under such a scenario, those farms wouldn’t qualify for regulatory exemptions available to farmers under the state’s right-to-farm and other laws.

That would allow local communities to have input into siting decisions and enact health and safety ordinances restricting or prohibiting air and water emissions.

“In terms of the size and impact of these facilities, it just makes sense that they be treated accordingly, with the amount of pollution they create and the liabilities they create,” van Saun said. “We need to rethink what we consider farming and whether we want to have this loophole.”

Both bills call for a moratorium on permits for new or expanded large dairies.

And both would eliminate or cap the use of an exemption in Oregon law that allows cattle owners to use an unlimited amount of water without the permits required for other types of water use. Lost Valley used the stockwatering exemption to tap a protected aquifer after a planned water rights transfer fell through.

One bill goes further. Among its provisions:

  • Requiring the state Environmental Quality Commission to regulate air emissionsfrom large dairies, based on the 2008 recommendations of a legislative task force. Oregon does not regulate air pollution from dairies, unlike some other states, including California and Idaho.
  • Prohibiting the state from issuing permits for new large dairies before applicants have secured water rights.
  • Requiring new large dairies to post a bond as security against environmental, health or animal welfare costs, such as costs due to manure spills, improper disposal of animals, excessive manure applications, cleaning up abandoned facilities, or relocating animals after a facility closure.
  • Requiring the Oregon Department of Agriculture to study and report on the economic impact of large dairies on small and medium dairies, including the effect large dairies have on milk prices.
  • Requiring the state to create a task force on animal welfare, which would recommend minimum standards for animal welfare at large dairies.

While other states have some of those provisions, no state has all of them, van Saun said.

“Oregon might be a shining example for the rest of the country,” she said.

A Senate committee voted Wednesday to introduce the bills in the 2019 Legislative session, which begins Jan. 22.

Oregon Department of Agriculture officials said they do not comment on legislative concepts.

In response to the problems at Lost Valley Farm, Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, formed a task force made up of regulators, public interest groups and industry officials.

At a meeting of the group Tuesday, Dembrow said he plans to introduce additional legislation out of the group dealing with the state’s dairy permitting process.

But that likely won’t go far enough for health and environment advocates.

“I think ODA recognizes they do need to make some changes. Lost Valley was this black light shining on all the problems we have,” Van Saun said. “But we don’t want to see a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.”

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