Idaho eases the way for factory farms
Idaho counties have fought hard in the past for the right to regulate mega-animal operations; Gooding County, which has some of the highest concentrations of dairies in the state, won a lawsuit in the Idaho Supreme Court in Feb. 2010 upholding its ability to regulate water and the number of animals per acre. But the state's legislature seems to be moving in a direction diametrically opposed to these local efforts to protect air and water quality from the concentrated pollution problems endemic to factory farms. In this year's legislative session, a number of bills moved the state toward becoming a more factory farm-friendly.
The state's legislature just sent a bill to governor C.L. "Butch" Otter making changes to the state's "right to farm" bill that protects farms who want to expand. The bill takes away local government's ability to regulate farm pollution if the farm has been operating for more than a year. It also protects large operations who want to expand from being sued by citizens if they are operating under "generally recognized agricultural practices."
Opponents of the legislation call it a "right to pollute" bill, while the ag lobby says it protects family farms. They may both be right -- family farms are getting larger and larger, and this act certainly is meant to protect operations that want to expand.
Another bill heading toward the governor's desk takes away citizens' rights to see dairies' nutrient management plans, which are turned into the state agriculture department. These are plans that detail how large dairy operations manage manure and contain waste, which can become a pollution problem when not properly dealt with. The law was spurred by a public records request by the watchdog group Idaho Concerned Area Residents for the Environment, which has been keeping track of dairies who they fear are not following their plans appropriately. If public access to the plans is taken away, the group says it will be more difficult to determine if dairies are following appropriate procedures in managing their waste. This law mirrors a state law passed last year for beef cattle operations, that deemed "proprietary" their nutrient management information.
And a final piece of legislation, also expected to pass and become law, moves control over how poultry operations manage wastewater from the state's Department of Environmental Quality to the Department of Agriculture. While this may sound somewhat sensible it's likely to result in laxer management plans. The state's department of agriculture is usually more inclined to support agriculture than it is to protect clean air and water. In fact, Idaho is unusual in that it allows the agriculture department to regulate much of the pollution in its beef and dairy operations; most states rely on their environment departments to do this. This change comes as Idaho anticipates a significant increase in the number of large chicken operations opening in the state.
It remains to be seen how these bills, if signed into law, will affect Idaho's water and air quality and the health and well-being of its citizens. Concentrated animal feeding operations are not generally well-regarded by the communities who live next to them; Idaho lawmakers however, don't seem to care.
Fun fact: The more than 135,000 dairy cows on factory-farm dairies in Gooding County, Idaho produce as much untreated manure as the sewage output from the New York City and Chicago metro areas combined. For more facts and information on factory farms in Idaho and other states, check out the factory farm map from consumer advocacy group Food and Water Watch.
Stephanie Paige Ogburn is HCN's online editor.
Manure lagoon image courtesy of the author.