science environment

Mega-Dairy Air Pollution Threat Puts Environmentalists On Alert

By Courtney Flatt (OPB)
Boardman, Oregon April 11, 2017 11:30 p.m.
Dairy cows have their milk pumped at Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman, Oregon.

Dairy cows have their milk pumped at Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman, Oregon.

Courtney Flatt

Boardman is best known to thousands of people for its roadside attraction: a sprawling tree farm along Interstate 84. Acres of poplar trees sprouted in orderly rows along the highway running through Eastern Oregon.

Now, most of those plantation trees have been cut down, the land sold. Part of it will soon become Oregon's second-largest dairy. Lost Valley Farms just received a key permit at the end of March. Its owners say the dairy should be up and running in a few weeks.

Industrial-scale livestock operations have for years been a growing part of America's rural landscape. They often create friction with opponents who warn of increased odors and water contamination. But the planned mega-dairy expansion in Eastern Oregon is raising concerns about an additional ecological threat: air pollution.

"There's strong evidence that large scale industrial livestock confinement operations can generate dangerous amounts of air contamination that's harmful to public health and air quality," said Lauren Goldberg, an attorney with Columbia Riverkeeper. She cited the threat of gasses like methane and ammonia.

In Oregon, large farms are not required by law to regulate how much air pollution they are creating.

But environmentalists and small farmers are trying to change that. They're promoting legislation — spurred on by the development of Lost Valley Farms — that would require large-scale dairies to follow certain air regulations.

It's important, they say, for the health of people living near mega-dairies and for those downwind.

Take the Columbia River Gorge. Goldberg said pollution from large farms and dairies with confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in Eastern Oregon are one big source of the haze and pollution there.

"Our big concern is we have an existing problem in the Gorge and throughout the Northwest," she said. "Why add additional pollutants to that, particularly when these operations — which are industrial-scale operations — are not subject to modern pollution laws, like the Clean Air Act?"

In Hood River, that's Rachel Perman's concern, too. Perman and her family have lived here for eight years.

"We get socked in here," Perman said. "If the wind is moving in the right direction, we're getting the waste gasses blown in from those CAFOs. It sort of gets trapped — it funnels down — because we've got the gorge and the mountains on either side."

She said increasing pollution like ammonia and nitrous oxide funneling through the gorge could make it harder for her 9-year-old son Max to breathe.

Max has had asthma since he was a toddler. He's been hospitalized for pneumonia and has had to take three different medications to keep his asthma under control. It's a scary, powerless feeling, she said, to not be able to help your child when he's that sick.

"The costs are getting externalized to us, and our health and our children's health is on the line. We need to do something about it," Perman said.

Perman said Max's asthma is getting better as he gets older, but it's still a concern; extra air pollution could dampen those health improvements.

A few hours west near the Oregon Coast, Carol Marie Leuthold and her family have operated a small dairy in Tillamook for 53 years. The operation has 200 dairy cows and 250 calves and non-milk-producing heifers. Because of the way their farm is permitted the Leutholds would have to follow the same air-quality regulations as those being written with the much larger Lost Valley Farms in mind. Bill supportes say they're working to amend the legislation so it will only apply to large-scale, industrial operations.

But that's not how the bill is currently written — and that's not viewed kindly by dairy farmers like Leuthold.

"It's an insult," she said. "It's a slap in the face to us because we have strived to be really good stewards. To employ whatever methods are available to us to please people who think they're right in complaining — people that don't farm."

She said regulations are necessary to keep people in line, but these proposed regulations go too far for dairies — and could prove too expensive for her farm in the long run. Leuthold said her dairy pipes its manure to a methane digester down the street and uses additives in the manure to help control the smell.

"We always have to think of all Oregonians, not just our own sector, and I feel like the dairy farmers in Tillamook have done that," Leuthold said.

In Boardman, Lost Valley Farms would house 30,000 cows at full capacity.

People here say that's a good thing.

Don Russell is a Morrow County commissioner. The commission originally had some questions about the new dairy. But now that those are answered, he said, bring on the jobs.

"To be honest with you, what is most frustrating to me, is you have people — completely out of the area — that don't understand agriculture," Russell said. "They just know that on a hot August afternoon they want an ice cream cone or a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup, without really understanding the process. And they have this nostalgic view that the cows must be happier or things must be better if they're in smaller sized operations. But that's not really the case."

Russell is standing in front of an exhibition featuring Oregon's largest dairy, Threemile Canyon Farms, which is about 10 miles west as the crow flies from this latest Lost Valley Farms controversy.

Threemile Canyon is huge. The farm covers land that's the same footprint as Portland. It houses about 70,000 cows, many of which produce milk for a Tillamook cheese processing plant in Boardman.

This dairy has four methane digesters, which are used to capture some of the potent greenhouse gas that's emitted from all that cow poop.

The gas generates power. General Manager Marty Myers said the digesters produce 30 percent of the power needed for the farm by collecting methane emissions.

"We wanted to be ahead of the game on both the way we operate a dairy, but we also wanted to be environmentally friendly to our community and the constituency in the state of Oregon and the region. That makes good business sense and good environmental sense," Myers said.

The operation is touted as an environmental model for large-scale dairies. One reason, said Commissioner Don Russell, is economies of scale.

"The amount of methane gas you get from large dairies is going to be the same whether they're separated out over a large area or confined into smaller units of large herds," Russell said.

That's a hard sell to the people who are trying to get air regulations through the Oregon state house. Ivan Maluski, policy director with Friends of Family Farmers, said mega-dairies are moving in and creating new sources of pollution, and:

"Methane digesters just address one issue — it addresses methane," Maluski said. "It doesn't address the ammonia emissions that were identified as a major source of acid deposition in the Columbia Gorge. And there's nobody monitoring. There's no independent verification that we're actually having a significant reduction in emissions."

The new dairy, Maluski said, will only add to air pollution from existing large-scale dairies in the area.

Almost 10 years ago, Oregon realized it had what mega-dairy opponents are calling a "loophole" in existing air regulations. It convened a task force with farmers, environmentalists and researchers to figure out how to better regulate air pollution from mega-dairies.

Threemile Canyon Farms participated. So did Friends of Family Farmers.

At the end, the group came out with recommendations that everyone was happy with. But the recommendations went nowhere.

Enter this year's proposal, Senate Bill 197. Similar recommendations. More pushback.

Liz Fuller is the spokeswoman for Lost Valley Farms — the dairy that's soon to be pumping more milk in Boardman.

Fuller said the new dairy will install a methane digester "within two to three years, should that option remain economically viable, and we have completed excavation for the construction of a digester for this purpose."

Good farms, large dairy operators say, should already have air quality measures in place, instead of a bill that requires regulations.

But mega-dairy opponents say it's not enough to just make a promise. They want these best management practices regulated for future dairies, too.

"There's no reason why existing operations should get a free pass to pollute air. The fact that they house animals, that's not an excuse for uncontrolled air pollution that harms people throughout Oregon," Goldberg said.

The bill has to make it out of the Senate Committee On Environment and Natural Resources by April 18, or it will be dead until the next legislative session.

Correction: April 11, 2017. An earlier version of the story incorrectly identified the spokeswoman for Lost Valley Farms. Her name is Liz Fuller.