New permit worries local ranchers

Eric Moeggenberg

JOHN DAY - A rancher with more than 300 cattle which are confined for at least 45 days a year may spend time and money fending off fraudulent charges of polluting under a new state-led inspection system.

That's one of the scenarios that had local cattle producers worried during an information session by the Oregon Department of Agriculture on Oct. 10.

"Every Tom, Dick and Harry can file a complaint, and I've got to defend myself," complained Ken Brooks, a rancher from Fox.

Under a new law from the 2001 Oregon Legislature, ODA is charged with issuing permits to all producers who operate a confined animal feeding operation, or CAFO. The permit applies to any operator with 1,000 or more cattle or any operator with 300 or more cattle and the existence of a wastewater treatment facility. House Bill 2156 authorized ODA to accept full delegation of the CAFO program from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A public comment period on the new state rules will close Friday, Nov. 15. ODA will hold public hearings during the comment period, including Thursday, Nov. 7 in Redmond at Eagle Crest resort; Wednesday, Nov. 13, at the extension office in Tillamook; and Thursday, Nov. 14 at the state agriculture building in Salem.

State oversight of the CAFO program does not mean eased regulation, explained Eric Moeggenberg, livestock water quality specialist for the Oregon Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Division.

"We have (authority) to do unannounced inspections," Moeggenberg said. "EPA does unannounced inspections, so we have to at least be equal to that. That doesn't mean that I can't inform you that I'm going to come, it just means we have the ability to conduct unannounced inspections. The other one is that (in the past, complaints) had to be written and it couldn't be an anonymous complaint. Now we take all complaints, whether it's anonymous, whether it's a phone call, because in order to get this into our shop, we have to be equal to the federal government's rules."

Meanwhile, the federal government's revised CAFO rule is in its final stages of adoption. David Domingo, environmental engineer with the CAFO program for EPA in Seattle, confirmed that a court-ordered federal standard for CAFOs is due to be signed Dec. 15 and printed in the Federal Register in early January.

"It's hard to predict what the final rule is going to look like," Domingo said.

The federal Office of Management and Budget is reviewing the rule for economic impacts. Moeggenberg told producers at the Oct. 10 meeting that CAFO operators could be regulated for their livestocks' impacts on groundwater, required to document all movement of manure offsite and limited as to how much manure they could spread on fields under the federal standard. However, Domingo said it's anyone's guess how extensive the final EPA rule will be.

"It's hard to predict what the final rule is going to look like," he said.

Willie Olandria, an environmental engineer for EPA in Portland, confirmed that producers must monitor manure per acre for nitrogen loading.

"Once they apply the manure on the ground, they have to keep track of it. They cannot overload the area that they are applying," he said.

However, he added, "If the cattle are in the field, that's not covered under the regulations."

Olandria also downplayed the federal CAFO rule's likely impact on local producers.

"I don't think there will be any surprises in that (federal rule)," he said. He noted that a two-year public comment period preceded the adoption process.

Regardless of the outcome, ODA will incorporate whatever changes the EPA rule presents.

Enforcement, one of the stickiest issues at ODA's Oct. 10 informational meeting, will remain a priority, but Moeggenberg assured the crowd of about two dozen operators that ODA will provide a more ag-savvy approach when conducting inspections and site visits.

Bill Scheufele, a Monument landowner, asked, "You just can't go on a fishing trip on people's property?"

Moeggenberg replied, "Typically what we would do is actually give them a call and say we've got a complaint, can we come out and investigate?"

As for the extreme case of acquiring a search warrant through the local sheriff's department, he said, "I avoid it at all costs."

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