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Know the West

Idaho: The CAFO state?


In 2008, California voters granted egg-laying hens the right to enough space to lie down, stand up, and stretch their wings. Egg farmers warned that the measure would increase costs, forcing them to leave the state to compete. And Idaho hastened to woo the would-be émigrés.

"(Poultry is) a really great industry to have around," says Idaho state Sen. Tim Corder, R, who sponsored 2010 legislation paving the way for relocating chicken farms. It creates lots of jobs, he says, and is "fairly benign, environmentally." A version of Corder's bill passed this year; the state is now finalizing a siting-and-permitting process for large- and medium-sized poultry facilities that includes identification of sensitive groundwater resources but likely won't require pollution-monitoring wells.

It's the latest in a decade's-worth of legislative changes to make Idaho an attractive place for concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, which have hundreds to millions of animals. The dairy industry took note: Idaho has vaulted from the 11th to the third-biggest milk producer in the country in the space of 16 years. Boise State University recently reported that dairy farming and processing, now Idaho's primary agribusiness, generated tax receipts of $26.7 million, and that dairy farmers earned a total of $428 million in taxable income. The industry claims 13,000 direct employees and 22,000 in indirect employment -- 5 percent of the state's workforce. And while California eventually required that all eggs sold instate, including imports, meet its standards, that hasn't cooled the romance between Idaho and huge chicken farms. But CAFOs also bring tons of untreated waste and associated health and environmental impacts, ranging from polluted groundwater to respiratory illnesses.

"When a community gets a reputation of being where the CAFOs are, nobody wants to locate another business there except another polluting business," says John Ikerd, a University of Missouri agricultural economist and outspoken opponent of industrial-scale agriculture. "It compromises the viability of those places."

In 2000, the Idaho Legislature began restricting public comment on CAFO sitings to those who live within a mile of the proposed location. That barred activists who testify on potential environmental and health problems around the state, says Rich Carlson, attorney and organizer for the Idaho Rural Council. "But more significantly, people who were beyond a mile but might be impacted were also excluded."

Three years later, the state prohibited its Water Resources Department from considering odors, possible health impacts and other matters "in the public interest" when changing water rights for dairy CAFOs. In 2010 and 2011, the Legislature made the manure-management plans of beef and dairy feedlots proprietary, essentially blocking outside oversight. Just before that, the Idaho Concerned Area Residents for the Environment audited those records and found that a third revealed dairy soils oversaturated with nitrogen and phosphorus, out of compliance with state and federal soil nutrient standards, according to Alma Hasse, ICARE's director.

Over the protests of the Idaho Association of Counties, the 2011 Legislature amended the state's Right to Farm law to prohibit local governments from regulating agricultural facilities as nuisances once they've been in operation for more than a year. It also barred neighbors from filing complaints using nuisance law. "Agriculture needs to be protected, (but) this bill is an injustice to neighboring property owners and agriculture itself. It should be withdrawn," Twin Falls County Planning and Zoning Director Bill Crafton wrote in comments on the bill.

Large animal-agriculture facilities can contaminate ground- and surface water with nitrate, which in drinking water can lead to oxygen deficiency in babies and is linked to cancer, and phosphorous, which can cause algal blooms and kill fish. Idaho's Magic Valley, home to many dairies, has some of the most impaired groundwater in the state (pollution sources include fertilizer, animal operations and humans); the nearby middle section of the Snake River is under Clean Water Act-mandated management plans to reduce phosphorous.

When waste collects in one place, it can also release ammonia, a noxious gas that irritates lungs and contributes to harmful particulate pollution. Large chicken and dairy farms have been known to emit significant amounts of ammonia and other harmful gases. Idaho's Department of Agriculture, rather than its Environmental Quality Department, regulates these sources of pollution, something critics see as a conflict of interest.

Yet CAFOs have helped stabilize Idaho's overall agricultural economy, even in a time of recession. Chickens eat corn; cows eat hay, corn and crop residues, and farmers who years ago may have grown only wheat or sugar beets have been able to diversify by selling to the state's dairy industry, says Sen. Corder.

Although the initial dairy influx resulted in pollution problems, Corder says that dairymen actively worked to ease their environmental impacts. "They spent a lot of effort, a lot of money, and a lot of time to mitigate and support common-sense laws and rules." He sees state actions like limiting nuisance claims as a way to create consistency for CAFOs across counties, avoiding a "patchwork" of varying regulations. Corder acknowledges that many environmental groups disapprove of how the state has regulated animal agriculture, but he thinks Idaho's strategy of working with industry is the right way to fix environmental problems. With three chicken farms in the works and a $2.75 million poultry-processing plant on the way, the state is preparing to test that strategy anew.

"I feel really good about where we are right now," he says. "We will always have two arguments: One that we've gone too far regulatorily, and the other that we haven't gone far enough."