Court Rules Mega-Dairies Can’t Keep Spreading Mega Waste in Secret

The New York Supreme Court sided with environmental groups, telling the state to revise a permit that has allowed huge industrial dairies to spread tons of manure onto nearby land without adequate safeguards.

Earthjustice is suing the state of New York for allowing huge dairy farms to pour tons of manure onto local land—waste that can runoff into waterways.
Earthjustice is suing the state of New York for allowing huge industrial dairies to spread tons of manure onto nearby land without adequate safeguards—threatening local waters and communities. (ArtemZ/Shutterstock)

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Update, April 25, 2018: Industrial dairies in New York will no longer be able to spew animal waste into local waterways without letting nearby residents know about the pollution. On April 23, the New York Supreme Court ordered the state Department of Environmental Conservation to revise the permit under which such large-scale dairies operate. The DEC currently allows large dairies to keep their waste management strategies confidential, even though the Clean Water Act requires these plans to be available for public review.

The average dairy covered by the current permit has about 950 cows and produces over 110,000 pounds of waste per day—about as much as the city of Albany. The state must revise the permit by October 23, and no new large dairies can begin operating under the current permit until it is updated.

Original post, April 18, 2017: Dairy cows have been bred to produce a lot of milk. They also produce a lot of waste. And when a dairy facility houses thousands of cows, the amount of waste it generates is tremendous. For example, according to its own records, one of the largest dairies in New York state produces more than 2,000 gallons of animal sewage per hour. The U.S. EPA estimates that a dairy operation with 2,500 cows “is similar in waste load to a city of 411,000 people.” And all this waste can runoff into local waterways, creating a health and safety nightmare.

Last month, Earthjustice sued the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation on behalf of Riverkeeper, Waterkeeper, the Cortland-Onondaga Federation of Kettle Lake Associations, the Sierra Club and Theodore Gordon Flyfishers. In our papers, we demonstrate that the department’s new and extremely lax permit for large dairies fails to stop these facilities from contaminating drinking and recreational waters. 

The lawsuit does not include the thousands of dairy farms in New York with smaller herds that can be more easily, safely and sustainably managed; it addresses only the largest facilities that pose the most serious threat. But in New York, family farms are disappearing, while mega-dairies are consolidating.

According to the latest estimates, more than half of the state’s 620,000 dairy cows are concentrated in roughly 500 industrial-sized operations. And this proportion is growing. Between 2002 and 2012, the total number of dairy farms in the state decreased by more than 25 percent, while the number of mega-dairies (those with more than 1,000 cows each) more than doubled. The 103 mega-facilities—comprising less than two percent of all dairies in the state—account for more than a quarter of the state’s dairy cow population. Those 103 industrial operations together generate twice as much sewage as all 62 cities in New York (including New York City) combined.

As the size of herds increases, so does the risk to neighboring water supplies. But state safeguards have not kept pace with the industry’s consolidation. Unlike human sewage, which must go through at least two stages of treatment before being released back into the environment, animal sewage can be spread onto fields with no treatment at all. In small volumes, animal waste can act as a low-cost fertilizer, but the vast volume of waste produced at industrial-scale dairies strains even the most careful operator’s efforts to protect neighboring waterways. Indeed, just last month, two manure spills within a week from one of New York’s largest dairies ended up “precariously close” to local water supplies. 

It’s crucial for the state to ensure that these huge dairies implement strict, enforceable safety standards. And it’s critical that impartial state experts and the public have the opportunity to review these safety plans. That’s what the federal Clean Water Act, as well as state law, requires.

However, in defiance of the law, the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s new permit for industrial dairies that are subject to the Clean Water Act does not call for the state to review dairies’ safety plans and does not allow the public to see the plans. In addition, the permit does not require dairies to adopt “best management practices” to prevent water pollution.

Consider the common New York practice of “winter spreading,” in which liquid manure is applied to cropland when no crops are growing and when the ground may be frozen or covered in snow. The EPA and other experts have echoed what residents in upstate New York communities say—that this practice is too risky and should be banned. Yet the new permit allows dairies far too much leeway to spread manure on cropless soils in wintertime, creating a high risk of runoff into nearby waterways during the kind of quick thaw that has become more common as weather patterns become more extreme and unpredictable.

By failing to insist that mega-dairies implement full safety measures, the state is shifting the burden onto people downstream.

By failing to insist that mega-dairies implement full safety measures, the state is shifting the burden onto people downstream. Towns where drinking water supplies are threatened or contaminated by dairy manure are already having to spend significant amounts on costly improvements to their drinking water treatment plants. It would be far better to keep the source water free from dairy cow waste in the first place.

As dairies in New York have grown in size and shrunk in number, they are not only creating a bigger pollution problem, but also losing a sustainable agricultural opportunity. Animal manure can be a good fertilizer, but only if it’s applied at the right time and in the right amounts. This is easier to ensure on smaller farms. The consolidation of dairies creates more pollution, which puts communities at risk. The state should be wary of further encouraging consolidation by not insisting on adequate safeguards on the largest farms.

About this series

Fertile Grounds is a blog series that examines the challenges and opportunities in ensuring access to healthy, sustainable and affordable food for all. We talk about the entire lifecycle of food—from seed selection and planting to consumption and disposal—because there is potential for improvement throughout. We’re informed by the expertise of our many clients and allies and by Earthjustice’s years of work to ban harmful pesticides, encourage sustainable farming methods, reduce pollution, support farmworker justice and promote a healthy relationship between farmers and communities.

Alok works at the Northeast regional office in New York, where he supports the region’s energy, agriculture and toxics docket. He is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Established in 2008, Earthjustice’s Northeast Office, located in New York City, is at the forefront of issues at the intersection of energy, environmental health, and social justice.

Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food and Farming program aims to make our nation’s food system safer and more climate friendly.