Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Lots of thoughtful feedback received as we update the CAFO permit

By Heather Bartlett, Water Quality Program Manager

We appreciate that so many citizens, producers, groups and organizations took a considerable amount of their time to give us thoughtful comments on the permit we’re updating for concentrated animal feeding operations, the CAFO permit.

Ecology listening session in Zillah in April 2015.
This permit covers animal feeding operations that confine large numbers of animals in a small area, creating lots of manure. CAFOs are one of many sources that pose a pollution risk to the health of our waters, our shellfish beaches, and the groundwater we drink.

Public input is essential in helping us update the permit with meaningful protection for water quality that is manageable for livestock producers to implement.

At the moment, the permit is a preliminary draft. This is a step we added to the process so that we could share our goals and initial thoughts and receive feedback before starting to write the permit.

CAFO permit is important to many
As you can imagine, this permit update is important to a lot of people. That’s why we’ve spent months meeting with livestock producers, dairies, businesses, environmental organizations and other stakeholders to learn what’s important to them and understand how they’d like to see the permit crafted.

Thousands of pages of comments
We received 91 letters signed by 168 people and groups, amounting to about 5,000 pages of comments and material. We’re reading through all of it, and will use it to inform our decisions as we develop the next permit draft.

We value the agriculture and dairy industries
One of our guiding principles throughout this process is believing that Washington’s agriculture and dairy industries are vitally important to our state. At the same time, we also believe that livestock, agriculture and clean water can co-exist and even thrive together.

Agriculture and dairy industries are vitally important to our state.
Working to avoid impacts on small dairies
We understand that dairies, especially small and medium-sized dairies, are under tremendous competitive pressure. The trend in the dairy industry has been toward fewer but larger dairies. As we update the permit, we are committed to doing what we can to mitigate the impact on small dairies.

Partnering with Department of Agriculture
Today, the Washington Department of Agriculture and Ecology both have roles in overseeing animal agriculture. Both agencies believe that the current regulatory framework should continue as it is, but that it can be improved for better water quality protections. The Department of Agriculture will continue to play an important role as we update the permit.

Concerns shared with us
Here is a sampling of concerns we received:
  • Requiring a permit for all producers with unlined lagoons is not necessary or warranted. Others believe permits should be required for all medium and large CAFOs. 
  • This permit should not be required unless the producer is proven to be causing pollution.
  • The current dairy nutrient management program protects water quality. Others believe it does not protect waters. 
  • The proposed permit is Ecology’s attempt to bring the regulation of dairies back under their control. 
  • The proposed permit needlessly adds regulatory burdens for little or no environmental benefit. Others believe environmental protections in the proposed permit are inadequate and need to be made significantly more protective.
Responding to some of the concerns
We appreciate the opportunity during this stage of the permit process to hear, share and respond to concerns that we have received. Two areas we wanted to respond to directly are the role of a permit and the pace for changes at facilities when a new permit goes into effect.

1. Permit coverage does not automatically mean an operation is polluting. 
Comments we received through the preliminary draft suggest that some perceive coverage under a CAFO permit means they have polluted. Both state and federal law require a water quality discharge permit for a discharge that reaches water or groundwater. They are not required because pollution is happening.

Our preliminary draft permit concluded that unlined manure lagoons seep and that seepage results in discharges to groundwater. Having CAFO permit coverage feels new for livestock operations, but the requirement to have a permit due to a discharge to water is not unique. In fact, more than 6,000 industries in Washington have to have discharge permits.

2. Permit coverage would not require changes to manure lagoons.
Under our preliminary proposal, all operations with manure lagoons would need to obtain CAFO permit coverage. However, we are not requiring lagoons to be retrofitted with synthetic liners during the permit term. There are prudent reasons for operations to consider modernizing their manure lagoon liners, but that would be a decision for the producer.

We’ll incorporate your feedback as we update the draft permit
We are still receiving comments, but we already know we have more work to do in a few areas, including:
  • When and why a CAFO permit is required
  • Addressing rainfall differences between eastern and western Washington
  • Manure and soil sampling requirements
  • Manure application restrictions and buffers
We are keeping an open mind 
The comments we received raised a lot of great questions and points. We are keeping an open mind as we update the permit. There will be another public comment period on a draft permit in the coming months. We look forward to continuing our dialogue with all who are touched by this permit.

We invite you to visit our website to see all of the comments we received.

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