Valley residents cry foul over dairy air

YAKIMA -- Jim and Linda Dyjak say they are prisoners in their own home east of Moxee because of emissions from a nearby dairy.

"Everything I own is covered with fly specks and dried feces," said Linda Dyjak.

Through the years, the Dyjaks and others who live near the Yakima Valley's 72 dairies and 129,000 cows have complained long and loudly about poor air quality to any regulatory agency that will listen.

Now, the Yakima Regional Clean Air Authority is prepared to take action on those complaints by proposing that dairies better control pollutants such as dust, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and carbon-based compounds.

Studies show these pollutants more easily penetrate the respiratory system to affect breathing, and also pose an increased risk for cardiovascular disease.

The operator of the dairy near the Dyjaks, Tom DeVries of DeVries Family Farms, said he already is doing much of what the Clean Air Authority's proposal calls for on his 4,800-cow operation.

"We do a lot of these things because I want to keep a good appearance and odors down as much as I can," DeVries said.

But the Dyjaks are anything but optimistic about the Clean Air Authority's plan. They and other longtime dairy critics say the industry has had too heavy a hand in drafting the new policy, and they suspect the authority is acting to head off potentially tougher federal requirements from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The industry counters that the authority's efforts will reaffirm that dairies already are doing a good job in limiting emissions.

The proposed policy, which is available for public comment, was scheduled for adoption next month but may now be delayed until early next year.

For its part, the Clean Air Authority maintains the time is right to take action and the board is doing so quickly. For a regulatory proceeding, the process has moved at lightning speed since the initial formation of a joint agency-industry work group earlier this summer.

Authority Executive Director Gary Pruitt says he had encouraged the board 15 years ago to address dairy emissions. But he said there wasn't the political will to regulate agriculture, the primary driver of the Valley's economy.

All that has changed, he said.

"At some point, EPA will come into this area and say we need to be doing something," Pruitt said. "By that time, we want to have something established and be able to demonstrate it is effective."

As it stands , the proposed policy requires dairies to submit an air-quality management plan to the agency for approval.

The plan will identify the management procedures --often called best practices -- the dairy will follow to reduce emissions. The policy lists more than 100 practices covering eight pollutants.

The Clean Air Authority's decision to move ahead with a local emissions policy comes against the backdrop of a nationwide study, itself the product of a 2006 consent agreement between the EPA and the swine, poultry and cattle industries.

The $14.8 million study, led by Purdue University in association with other universities, including Washington State University, will determine the safe level of emissions from animal feeding operations. The contaminants included in the study are the same as those regulated in the proposed local air authority policy.

The study will give EPA the information on how to reduce pollution from animal feeding operations. Collection of the data -- including measurements from an unidentified Lower Valley dairy -- is completed.

A state dairy industry official says it's likely the results will require the dairy industry nationally to begin complying with the Clean Air Act within about 18 months. Should the federal agency impose tougher emission standards, the authority would have to update its policy to reflect them.

Jay Gordon, executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation, says the industry felt it was wiser to deal with the issue now than wait for federal action.

At the same time, EPA officials are planning a public meeting on the Yakama Indian Reservation to hear complaints about air quality issues on the 1.2 million-acre reservation.

A date for the public meeting hasn't been set, according to Debra Suzuki, manager of the agency's state and tribal air programs unit in Seattle.

"There are a lot of air quality issues in the Yakima area. Some of them are about CAFOS (confined animal feeding operations) and some are about other concerns," she said.

Meanwhile, the Dyjaks and others say the Clean Air Authority's proposals look a lot like existing dairy nutrient management plans, which are meant to control emissions and manure handling. Those plans, which are secret, are regulated by the state Department of Agriculture.

Dairy nutrient management plans have been around a long time, the Dyjaks say, but people living near dairies still have breathing problems and suffer from coughs, runny noses and headaches.

Larry Fendell of Zillah, another dairy critic, said the practices in the proposal just don't work.

"A lot of people are getting mad because this is affecting their civil rights to enjoy their property," he said.