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Environmental groups serve DEC with lawsuit for deregulating dairy farm restrictions

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Environmental groups are suing the state Department of Environmental Conservation over its deregulation of medium-size dairy farms, claiming the agency violated the federal Clean Water Act by easing regulations on manure.

The issue involves Concentrated Animal Food Operations, or CAFOs. Farms with 200 to 299 cows previously fell under the medium-size CAFO designation, which meant they were subject to regulations on spreading manure in fields. Farms now can own up to 300 cows before they qualify as a CAFO.

CAFO regulations are designed to protect streams and rivers from high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous from manure.

The environmental groups filing suit, including Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club, contrast with the legislative agenda of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who introduced the CAFO legislation last year during a Greek yogurt summit in Albany.

By encouraging smaller farms to increase their herds, the plan was heralded by state legislators and industry leaders as a way to increase the state’s milk production and help meet the skyrocketing demand for Greek yogurt.

But the environmental groups’ lawsuit contends that DEC failed to follow the correct legislative procedure to deregulate CAFO requirements.

Katherine K. Hudson, watershed program director for Riverkeeper, a clean-water advocate organization, said Monday that studies conducted by environmental groups conclude that undoing CAFO requirements, which often require farmers to build manure storage facilities and lagoons, will make it difficult for the state to ensure farmers are following procedures to ensure manure runoff doesn’t contaminate streams and rivers. She contended that without DEC playing a parental role, there will be numerous contamination problems at dairy farms.

DEC previously said it didn’t have adequate staffing to monitor farms that formerly qualified as medium-sized CAFOs.

“Instead of trying to prevent an environmental disaster from happening, we’re now going to have to wait until it happens,” Ms. Hudson said. “One of the things we address is the governor’s office never considered any alternatives, beyond these farms expanding, as ways to increase milk production. There are other ways that don’t necessarily involve deregulating medium-sized dairy farms.”

Ms. Hudson contended that because farms with more than 200 heads of cattle produce more manure, it needs to be disposed of more effectively than at smaller dairy farms. Studies cited by the lawsuit suggest that when too much manure is spread on farmland, there is a greater likelihood that it will flow into streams and rivers during the winter.

But Julie C. Suarez, director of public policy for the New York Farm Bureau, said the environmental impacts alleged by the lawsuit are exaggerated. She said dairy farmers who expand their herds already work hand in hand with officials at the state Department of Agriculture & Markets and soil conservation districts to ensure they are meeting environmental standards.

“They will still have to make sure they do everything environmentally correctly, just not necessarily through the DEC now,” Ms. Suarez said. “If farmers wind up discharging manure into a stream, they’re subject to a whole host of regulations and penalties.”

Ms. Suarez said she believes the former CAFO requirements for medium-sized farms were a barrier to growth. She said the relaxed CAFO requirements will help small farms increase milk production.

“If a farmer has 199 cows and doesn’t have a manufacturing facility, if he adds five cows he’d have to add a manure lagoon,” Ms. Suarez said. “I think this will give smaller-sized farms a little more availability to grow cattle to increase milk demands. From my perspective, you’re not going to see many farms go from 199 to 299 cattle right away.

“I think the environmentals are really reaching for an issue here, and to be so fixated on a hard number without looking at the overall aspect of the farming community and what it needs to grow is absurd,” she said.

The lawsuit was filed in state Supreme Court in Albany County. Some of the environmental groups leading the lawsuit are being represented by Earthjustice, a nonprofit law organization. Others are represented by the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic in White Plains.

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