Environmental groups sue County over new dairy regulations

Lawsuit claims Tulare County’s Climate Action Plan, Animal Confinement Facilities Plan do little to limit dairy pollution

By Reggie Ellis


VISALIA— A coalition of three environmental groups sued Tulare County last week for approving new regulations for dairy farms and feedlots that they claim would worsen air quality and undercut California’s greenhouse gas reduction goals.

The lawsuit, filed on Jan. 11 by the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and the Association of Irritated Residents, calls into question the environmental impact report for an Animal Confinement Facilities Plan (ACFP) and the related General Plan Amendment, zoning change and Dairy Feedlot and Dairy Climate Action Plan (CAP) approved by the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 12, 2017.

The lawsuit contends that the EIR failed to adequately establish a baseline for the project or enforceable mitigation measures in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act. “[County of Tulare has] prejudicially abused their discretion because [they] have failed to proceed according to the law, and their decision is not supported by substantial evidence,” the groups stated in their lawsuit.

It goes on to state that the ACFP was intended to make approval of new or expanded dairies quicker and easier and to make tracking of existing dairies easier. The lawsuit questions the use of 2013 as a “baseline year” and argues that the plan encourages adding another 200,000 cows by 2023 despite state mandates to reduce green house gas emissions by 2020. The group questions the ACFP’s lack of mitigation measures to reduce green house gas emissions from the added cows as the policy only suggests strategies such as feed additives and digesters, which capture methane gases released by cows and convert them to natural gas fuel. It also said the EIR failed to consider pasture-based dairies instead of the traditional confinement based dairies.

The County contends that the policies reduce pollution by using state oversight and monitoring instead of relying on the county staff. Under the plans, the County now relies on state water (Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board) and air (San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District) regulatory agencies to determine which dairies will be permitted to operate under tightening regulations from the state to prevent air and groundwater pollution. Dairy expansions still require a new CEQA review unless the dairy was already in compliance with the new rules and as long as operations maintain the legal distance from the nearest property.

The Tulare County Planning Commission approved the ACFP, Dairy CAP, zoning amendment and EIR process in separate motion on Oct. 25. The Supervisors approval on Dec. 12 capped off an extensive public debate on the proposed rules that began six years ago. Among the agencies that reviewed and responded to the draft environmental Impact report (EIR) for the ACFP was the water control board, which said it did not have language in place to define herd size or animal units, and the air district, which only made minor language changes to specific paragraphs of the document. The county corrected this in the final EIR to say that it was using its own definition. On Oct. 23, 2016, Hannah Connor and Jonathan Evans with the Center for Biological Diversity shared their concerns about that the CAP and ACFP did adequately address green house gas emissions from dairies and feedlots.

Tulare County is home to more than 1 million cattle — more than double the human population — and produces more milk than any other U.S. county. Industrial cattle operations in the county produce the equivalent of 7.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year — approximately 63 percent of the county’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2013. By 2023 that number is expected to grow to the equivalent of almost 9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to the groups.

Industrial dairy and feedlot operations also produce hazardous air pollutants such as ammonia and particulate matter.

“Tulare County has to stop ignoring the unhealthy reality that dairies and feedlots release nearly two-thirds of the county’s greenhouse pollution,” said Hannah Connor, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Instead of protecting public health, county officials are sabotaging efforts to curb climate change’s devastating effects.”

The environmental groups allege that the county’s CAP and ACFP undermine California’s greenhouse gas reduction goals. For example, they allow cattle operations to avoid setting mandatory emissions reduction targets for the livestock sector and avoid enforceable mitigation for these operations.

Industrial animal agriculture also contributes to high rates of nitrate and coliform bacteria pollution in water supplies in the county and to Visalia’s dubious distinction of having one of the highest levels of ozone and particle pollution in the country, the groups contend. Tulare County is also home to numerous species imperiled by climate change and cattle facilities, including the Central Valley steelhead, California tiger salamander and San Joaquin kit fox.

“It’s shocking that in 2018 the industrial dairy and feedlot industry is still receiving special treatment under these climate action plans despite the industry’s notorious role in driving climate change,” said Gordon Nipp of the Sierra Club. “This lawsuit seeks to hold this industry accountable by ensuring that common-sense measures are put in place to meaningfully acknowledge, address and limit the greenhouse gas emissions from this sector.”

People living near and working on factory farms report a range of health issues, including headaches, nausea, diarrhea, respiratory irritation and congestion, heart palpitations and shortness of breath. Factory-farm emissions like particulate matter, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide are known to contribute to serious health problems, including acute and chronic respiratory diseases among workers and at-risk populations like children and the elderly.

“I’ve seen firsthand how air pollution from industrial dairies leads to health problems like headaches in my own family. Tulare County must take stronger steps to protect people in the community,” said Tom Frantz, executive director of Association of Irritated Residents and an almond farmer in the San Joaquin Valley. “Six thousand animals in one dairy have the waste stream of a city of half a million people, and there are common sense ways to reduce the air pollution from dairies that the county overlooks.”

The Sierra Club, which boasts about 1.2 million members statewide, say they have members who work or reside in Tulare County. The Center For Biological Diversity, an environmental justice non-profit that focuses on protecting diverse native species and habitats, said some of its 63,000 members live and own property in Tulare County but is headquartered in Oakland, Calif. The Association of Irritated Residents is based out of Kern County and is a collection of Valley residents whose families and friends “have direct experience with the many health impacts that arise from the type of pollution emissions associated with the Project.”

The groups are being represented by Babak Naficy, of the Law Offices of Babak Naficy in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Naficy requested the court issue a temporary stay, temporary restraining order, and preliminary and permanent injunctions restraining Respondents and their agents, servants, and employees, and all others acting in concert with them or on their behalf, from taking any action to implement or fund any portion or aspect of the Project, pending full compliance with the requirements of CEQA, and the CEQA Guidelines;

For alternative and peremptory writs of mandate directing Respondents to vacate and set aside certification of the EIR and all approval documents for the Project;

Mandate the County to comply with CEQA, and a declaration that the ACFP violated CEQA and that any project approvals would be invalid. They are also suing for court costs and attorney fees.

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