SALEM - Livestock operations in Oregon that meet certain criteria have until the end of September to apply for a new permit issued by the Oregon Department of Agriculture regulating animal waste. For some operators, this kind of permit may be something totally new. For others, it is a familiar procedure. For all who are covered by the permit, the process will end up giving them stronger legal protection as long as they are operating according to the conditions of the permit.
"This permit is all about protecting water quality," says Debbie Gorham, administrator of ODA's Natural Resources Division. "Every livestock producer considers themselves a steward of the land and water. By having this permit and operating according to its conditions, they are helping to protect this natural resource."
At issue are Confined Animal Feeding Operations, which include feedlots, ranches, dairies, poultry operations, hog farms, mink farms, livestock auction yards, or even dog kennels. But they all have one thing in common - they can produce a great deal of animal waste. ODA's CAFO program issues permits to these operations to help ensure that animal waste does not impact nearby surface waters or groundwater.
A revised CAFO Program has left the state in charge of regulating all related facilities in lieu of the federal government. Those who need what is called a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit are now required to apply for coverage under the new Oregon CAFO General Permit. The challenge is operators may not know for certain whether they need the new permit, and ODA needs to hear from those operators before it can help make that determination. ODA is aware of operations that were permitted in the past under a previous permit. Those operations must also apply. But the department is unaware of facilities that have not been permitted in the past. There may be as many as 500 operations - most of them probably beef cattle facilities - that may need the new permit but are not known to ODA.
"Federal CAFO regulations were revised earlier this year, and now requires livestock operations that meet the definition of a facility requiring a permit to have permit coverage," says Gorham. "Oregon has adopted the federal regulations as part of obtaining delegated authority to run the CAFO program in lieu of the federal Environmental Protection Agency."
Sizable fines levied by EPA against cattle operations following surprise inspections in Eastern Oregon in recent years led to legislation giving the state responsibility for all operations that require a permit. An industry advisory committee helped design the program and the permit that is the backbone of CAFO regulations.
ODA has taken a customer service approach to getting permit applications from livestock operators.
"With our six CAFO inspectors spread across the state, we have the ability to provide a very rapid turnaround time," says Gorham. "If an operator calls our Salem office or contacts one of our inspectors directly, we will be happy to set up an appointment to visit the operation, do a walk-through, and make a determination right then and there as to whether a permit is required. If one is required, we can help fill out the application. As soon as the application is complete, a permit will be issued after Oct. 1."
A major component of the new permit is the requirement of an animal waste management plan for all permitted operations. By the end of 2006, all permitted facilities will need to be operating according to those plans, with the larger operations facing earlier deadlines. Oregon has not required CAFO permittees to have such a plan in the past, but officials don't see the requirement as necessarily costly or cumbersome.
"The beauty of the animal waste management plan is that one size doesn't fit all," says Wym Matthews, CAFO inspector with ODA. "Each plan is designed to be site specific and allows the operator to develop it with their facilities and situation in mind. Most operators have a plan for their facility already in their head. This permit requirement is the exercise of getting that on paper. Once operators get over that initial hump, it should be OK."
The animal waste management plan and other requirements of the new CAFO permit could ultimately affect an operator's bottom line in a positive way.
"Another thing that might be different for producers is the testing of soils, manures, forages, etc., and keeping records of those tests for reporting," says Matthews. "That's the performance-based part of the animal waste management plan. It shows how their cropping and manure system works agronomically, which is a very important economic tool for the farmers to use."
While ODA is getting the word out on the need to apply for the new permit - even if producers end up not needing it - the clock is ticking. Just a month is left before the deadline for applications. Enforcement action may be a consequence for those who need to apply but don't. ODA prefers to encourage potential permittees.
"I can't emphasize strongly enough that if you even think you might need the permit, give us a call or look at our Web site to get more information," says Gorham.
CAFO livestock water quality specialists can be located online at: http://oda.state.or.us/nrd/cafo/map.html or by calling (503) 986-4700.
With the livestock industry supporting legislation that put all CAFO regulations in the hands of ODA, and with the industry working through the advisory committee to craft the revised rules and permit, state officials hope to receive a high number of applications before the end of next month.
For more information, contact Gorham at (503) 986-4704.