In Short

Environment commission asks for public opinion on regulating air emissions from large dairies

By: - October 4, 2022 5:45 am

Dairies with more than 700 cows, like this one in Pennsylvania, are known as confined animal feeding operations. (Lance Cheung/U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Oregon’s Environmental Quality Commission is asking the public to help decide whether the state should regulate air pollution from large dairy operations. 

The request follows a petition filed in August by nearly two dozen environmental, farming and public health groups asking that the state do something to monitor emissions from dairies with 700 or more cows held in an industrial operation, know as confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. 

These farms, with hundreds and sometimes thousands of animals producing tons of manure each year, are sources of air pollutants including ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, nitrous oxide, methane, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds, according to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

The public can submit written comments about a potential monitoring program for dairy operations through Oct. 23.

The Environmental Quality Commission, made up of five governor-appointed members who oversee the environmental quality department, will decide by Nov. 15 whether rules should be created. 

Such rules would require the environmental quality department to track emissions from large-scale dairy farms and to set limits on those emissions.

The department does not currently regulate air emissions from CAFOs. The department does issue permits for construction and operation of manure storage and processing, such as digesters that produce biogas. The Oregon Department of Agriculture is responsible for permitting CAFOs and ensuring that surface and groundwater are protected. 

The petitioners claim the state’s agriculture and environmental agencies have largely ignored the issue of air pollution from these operations. 

Petitioner Emily Miller, staff attorney at the Washington D.C. based Food & Water Watch, wrote to the commission that “air pollution from the state’s growing number of exceedingly large mega-dairies threatens the public health and safety of Oregonians, as well as the environment. Yet the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality neither monitors nor regulates this air pollution.” 

This is the third time in 15 years that advocates have called for regulating air emissions from large dairies. In 2007 and 2017, legislative task forces studied the issue and recommended the state create an emissions program and regulate CAFOs for air quality, but neither resulted in the formation of a regulatory program. 

The number of cows in Oregon has more than tripled during the last 30 years, and the number of farms with 1,000 or more cows has, too, Miller said. In 1997, Oregon had eight dairies with more than 1,000 cows. Today, there are nearly nine times that. One of the largest, Threemile Canyon in northeast Oregon, has 70,000 cows. In 2005, its ammonia emissions were among the highest in the nation, according to a Food & Water Watch analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data.

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.

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