YAKIMA -- The latest effort to regulate Yakima Valley's dairies remains a deeply divisive issue with citizens on one side complaining they're being ignored and the industry on the other saying they are unfairly under siege.
At a clean air meeting Thursday, a small but vocal group of critics decried a proposed policy to reduce airborne emissions as toothless rules drafted far from the public eye.
Dairy operators, who largely were absent from the meeting, believe their role in the Yakima Valley's economy is under attack and that citizens want to put them out of business.
Directors of the Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency, which is considering adopting the new policy, are feeling the pressure.
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Long-term board member and chairman Tom Gasseling threatened to resign in the wake of e-mails critical of him sent in the days before the meeting.
Gasseling declined later to talk about his threat to resign, saying only that the criticism doesn't help the process.
"We need to move forward and keep this process moving and keep the involvement of all participants and try not to make it a war where people stop talking and nothing happens," Gasseling said.
Staff will review 146 public comments submitted over the agency's website before the comment period expired Thursday. The policy is scheduled for adoption in February.
Directors called the proposal an improvement over what exists now.
But on full display at the meeting was the chasm that separates dairies and their opponents in the most dairy-intensive county in Washington state. Yakima is home to 72 dairies and 129,000 cows.
The proposed policy would require dairy operators to adopt practices that reduce emissions of dust, ammonia, and other compounds that can affect breathing and pose an increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
The policy was created by a committee made up of agency staff, an agricultural professor and representatives of the dairy industry.
Opponents criticized the lack of public representatives and recommended the six-month process either be scrapped and restarted or extended to allow for citizen involvement.
"We aren't expendable people in the Lower Valley," said Eric Anderson, a member of a group called Friends of Toppenish Creek. "We may not be wealthy, but we aren't expendable."
He suggested that including environmental groups and citizens would place the clean air board "above suspicion" in its efforts to improve air quality around dairies.
Helen Reddout of Outlook, a longtime critic of dairy practices, said opponents don't want to see dairies leave the county. But she said clean-air laws need to be enforced.
"There are 40,000 of us being affected by 72 families running these dairies," she said. "All we are asking for is that policies and regulations on the books be followed."
It's those 40,000 people, mostly in the Lower Valley, who are being left out, she said.
Steve George of Moxee, a consultant for the Yakima Valley Dairy Federation, told the board that dairy operators want to be treated fairly.
"It is a burden for them," George said of the policy. "They believe there is a system in place and they look forward to documenting what is in place."
Critics have argued that a public hearing should be held on the proposal before it is adopted. But the agency's executive director, Gary Pruitt, said a public hearing isn't required for a policy that will start as a six-month pilot program, followed by an evaluation.
Under the proposal, dairies would be required to submit plans on what management practices they would use to reduce emissions.
Gasseling said that by submitting the plans, operators will be subject to regulation by the agency, although the policy says little about how the plans will be enforced.
Other directors said the agency is wise to deal with the problem now before the federal government issues new regulations -- a move that is still several years away.
Bill Lover, a Yakima City Council member, said the agency can't wait until the federal Environmental Protection Agency adopts rules based on a $14 million nationwide study of dairy emissions.
Selah Mayor Bob Jones, also a director, said the problem has been long-standing and is growing. Not everyone will be happy with the outcome, he said.
"Will everyone get all they want? Probably not," Jones said. "Are dairies right? Absolutely not."