PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) — The public will have another month to weigh in on a controversial new mega-dairy proposed at the former Boardman Tree Farm property.
More than 2,300 comments have already poured in to the Oregon Department of Agriculture and Department of Environmental Quality on the Lost Valley Ranch, an operation that would add 30,000 cows to the area and generate roughly 187 million gallons of liquid manure each year.
ODA and DEQ are responsible for registering the dairy as a confined animal feeding operation, or CAFO. But first, the agencies must approve a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit, which outlines how Lost Valley will manage wastewater and monitor for potential groundwater contamination.
A public hearing was held July 28 at the Port of Morrow, where a majority of people favored approving Lost Valley's permit application. Speakers included the project designer, local contractors and Marty Myers, general manager of neighboring Threemile Canyon Farms, which runs an even larger dairy with an astounding 70,000 cows.
"Sustainable agriculture is really what we're talking about here," Myers said during the hearing.
However, the bulk of written comments oppose Lost Valley, arguing such large dairies have a negative impact on air and water quality. Wym Matthews, CAFO program manager for ODA, said the sheer number of comments they received was unprecedented.
"The agencies are bound to look at those comments and respond to them all," Matthews said.
The original public comment period ended Aug. 4, though it was reopened Monday at the request of the state Environmental Justice Task Force and will now run through 5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 4.
Lost Valley Ranch is proposed by California dairyman Greg te Velde, who purchased 7,288 acres along the southern boundary of the Boardman Tree Farm east of where Homestead Lane intersects with Poleline Road.
For 14 years, te Velde has run the Willow Creek Dairy on land leased from Threemile Canyon Farms, producing 70,000 gallons of milk per day to Tillamook Cheese at the Port of Morrow. Now, he wants to move and expand his operation, with more than triple the number of cows.
The application for Lost Valley Ranch includes an Animal Waste Management Plan, describing how waste will be managed on site. The plan calls for six main lagoons, adding up to 260 acre-feet of storage. All lagoons would have a double liner with leak detection to protect against material leaching into the groundwater.
The nitrogen-rich waste would then be recycled and applied at agronomic rates — based on soil testing — to irrigate 5,900 acres of farmland growing animal feed, such as corn silage and alfalfa. Whatever is left over would be used to make animal bedding or transferred off site, according to the application.
A methane digester might also be considered to mitigate air pollution, te Velde said, though that's not in their immediate plans. He figures it will cost about $4,000 per milking cow just to get the dairy up and running. The state CAFO permit does not require any air pollution measures.
Most of the environmental concerns raised by the public have already been addressed in the application, te Velde said.
"I don't think there are any new issues that came up," he said.
After some initial trepidation, the Morrow County Court has also come out in support of Lost Valley Ranch. Local officials had expressed concern about the development of a second large dairy within three critical groundwater areas, as well as impacts to nearby irrigation canals and concern for animal mistreatment.
In comments filed Aug. 24, the court said it trusts those issues will be addressed during the permit review process.
"The positive economic impacts that the proposed dairy would have on our region, coupled with the review and oversight provided under the ODA permitting process, brings the county court to the conclusion that it is in the best interest of the Morrow County community to approve this application," they wrote.
Other groups are pushing back against the proposal, urging the agencies to reject the Lost Valley permit over threats to the environment and public health.
Tarah Heinzen, staff attorney for Food & Water Watch based in Washington, D.C., was the lead author for 16 pages worth of comments filed on behalf of nine organizations, including: Food & Water Watch; Columbia Riverkeeper; Friends of Family Farmers; the Northwest Environmental Defense Center; Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility; the Sierra Club; Friends of the Columbia Gorge; the U.S. Humane Society; and the Center for Biological Diversity.
If approved, Lost Valley Ranch would generate waste on par with a mid-size city, Heinzen said. Meanwhile, the area is home to the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area, where the level of nitrates in the groundwater already exceeds the federal safe drinking water standard.
The potential for further water pollution is significant, Heinzen said, and Lost Valley's application too vague to assure the facility can handle such a large volume of waste.
"The size of this facility is just staggering," Heinzen said. "This is essentially going to be a sewer-less city."
According to their comments, the nine groups claim that CAFOs produce more than 300 million tons of waste across the country each year, which can include things like salmonella and E. coli making their way into nearby waterways. Yet the Oregon CAFO permit lacks surface water monitoring required under the federal Clean Water Act.
There are also no controls on regulating air emissions from the facility, said Lauren Goldberg, staff attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper.
"We were taken aback by the lack of critical public health, air and water pollution controls," Goldberg said.
In 2008, the Oregon Dairy Air Quality Task Force issued a final report to ODA and DEQ finding that dairies have the potential to emit several kinds of harmful pollutants, such as ammonia and methane. It issued a list of recommendations to create a dairy air quality program by 2015 — none of which have been implemented so far, Goldberg said.
Best management practices
The state has also failed to consider the combined effects of having Lost Valley Ranch so close to Threemile Canyon Farms in Morrow County, Goldberg said.
DEQ and the Southwest Clean Air Agency, however, issued a Columbia River Gorge Air Study and Strategy in 2011 stating that Threemile Canyon is "continuously addressing its air emissions by applying new technologies and adaptively managing its dairies with best management practices."
That includes using manure as fertilizer and compost for agricultural crops on the farm, and building a methane digester to generate power. In the same report, DEQ said implementation of the Dairy Task Force's recommendations was dependent on receiving funding from the Legislature, which never came through.
"In the meantime, the Oregon dairy industry has identified voluntary (best management practices) being utilized by various dairy operations in Oregon," the report states.
Objections to Lost Valley aren't limited to environmental impacts. Ivan Maluski, policy director for Friends of Family Farms, is critical of how factory farming has harmed smaller farms and ranches across the state.
When Threemile Canyon arrived in Oregon in 2002, Maluski said the state lost roughly nine dairy businesses per month over a period of five years, even as the overall number of dairy cows increased. Lost Valley Ranch is easily the largest dairy proposal since Threemile Canyon, he said.
"All farms have been the backbone of Oregon's economy for several generations," Maluski said. "I think we need to do what we can to make sure we're not putting those operations out of business."
Public comments against Lost Valley Ranch also address the facility's "unreasonable" water withdrawals, amounting to more than 3.2 million gallons per year, and a lack of outreach to environmental justice communities, including the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation which maintain treaty rights on the land.
"You see really diverse interests that are converging around a shared opposition to this project," Goldberg said.