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ENVIRONMENT

Environmental groups sue DEC over Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation permits

Dairy cattle

Dairy cows may be found either in herds on dairy farms where dairy farmers own, manage, care for, and collect milk from them, or on commercial farms.

Several New York environmental groups have filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Environmental Conservation regarding the agency's newly released permit for large animal farms operating within watersheds. The groups argue that the permit violates the federal Clean Water Act.

The complaint was filed April 11 in state Supreme Court in Albany County by Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization. That group is representing the Waterkeeper Alliance, Riverkeeper, Cortland-Onondaga Federation of Kettle Lake Associations, Sierra Club and the Theodore Gordon Flyfishers Inc. 

The DEC released rules for two new Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation permits in February, following a nearly year-long public feedback and review process. The permit concerning activists the most involves CAFOs that discharge into watersheds. Typically in New York state, a CAFO permit within a watershed involves farms that have 200 or more cows that are housed in a confined area for 45 days or more out of the year.

On average, a cow can produce 100 pounds of manure per day, and with some farms in the Owasco and Cayuga Lake watersheds housing more than 1,000 cows, there's a lot of excrement to handle.

According to the complaint filed by Earthjustice, the Clean Water Act requires that medium and large CAFOs discharging into nearby waters "be subject to a permit that contains important enforceable safety restrictions, is reviewed and approved by impartial state experts, and is available to the general public, including nearby residents." The groups argue that under the state's new permit for CAFOs within watersheds, farms' nutrient management plans are not public, are created by private contractors and not reviewed by DEC experts and do not "address potential discharges from all facets" of the operation. 

Mike Dulong, an attorney representing the organization Riverkeeper, said the group is very supportive of the agricultural industry. He said farms are a great use of open space and an important source of local food. It's the state's permitting rules and the organizations' beliefs in the lack of water quality protections that they want changed.

"We just want them to comply with federal law," Dulong said. "These types of facilities all have about the same amount of sewage as the city of Albany, every single day, and we have access to the city of Albany's CSO (Combined Sewage Overflow) permit. We can look at their sewage permits, review them, and make sure they're following them. We should make sure we can do that for every large CAFO in the state."

Similar comments were made by Cayuga County officials and the Owasco Watershed Lake Association during the public comment period for the CAFO permits. Groups wanted the nutrient management plans to be more open to the public. Though there is a 30-day review process for the public to comment on significant changes to a nutrient management plan, the complaint argues that the DEC does not provide easy access to that information, requiring parties to file a Freedom of Information Law request. Typically agencies have five business days to acknowledge the request, and 20 business days to fulfill or deny it.

Dulong said they are also advocating for the requirement to have more manure storage on farms. Dulong said he knows that's a costly enterprise for farmers, and the groups are also hoping the state will help to fund more of those structures. Having more storage lessens a farm's need to spread, especially a concern during the winter months and on days with heavy rains when runoff is a threat.

There are CAFOs doing this right, Dulong added. 

"We just want to make sure the public has access to make sure every CAFO is doing this right," he said.

In several watershed meetings, farmers and planners have said their nutrient management plans are too complex for the average person to review. They don't want people driving around and policing their farms either, especially when the general public may not understand some farming practices. It's also a security risk for the farm, they've said, should everyone know where every manure lagoon is on their land.

The DEC said it does not comment on pending litigation.

When it released the CAFO permits, however, DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said in a release that the new rules safeguard public health and the environment.

"DEC has been working with stakeholders for more than two decades to balance environmental, agricultural, and civic interests in order to protect the environment while developing workable protections for New York's farmers," he said.

Dulong said they are still waiting for the state's response to the suit, but they do not expect to hear back until June. Meanwhile, the CAFO permits will go into effect in July.

Staff writer Gwendolyn Craig can be reached at (315) 282-2237 or gwendolyn.craig@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @gwendolynnn1.

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A petition and complaint filed against the state Department of Environmental Conservation regarding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation permits.

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