Got cows?

Neighbors are dismayed by air, water and odor pollution they say will emanate from a new 6,000-cow mega-dairy west of Davis

Richard Cushman and his wife, Beverly Lozano, are not too happy with the huge dairy that’s moved in across the road.

Richard Cushman and his wife, Beverly Lozano, are not too happy with the huge dairy that’s moved in across the road.

Photo by Elizabeth McCarthy

An angry Richard Cushman pulled out a crate stuffed with files of information about the massive, nearly complete Heritage Dairy across the road from his home. The farmer, who lives in rural Solano County west of Davis, rifled through his collection of articles about the environmental havoc caused by large corporate milk factories, and copies of letters protesting the county planning commission’s July 2001 approval of the 6,000-cow mega-dairy.

While Cushman contemplated his files, his wife, Beverly Lozano, examined photos taken during the heavy rainstorm in December. The photos showed runoff from the nearby dairy’s newly built cow stalls flowing freely into an irrigation ditch. The photos reinforced one of the couple’s fears: that huge amounts of manure from the dairy, which now only houses a few hundred cows, may contaminate the couple’s drinking-water wells.

Cushman and Lozano, whose complaints were largely ignored by the county before it approved the dairy, were discouraged by the minimal public notice and scant documentation the county considered in assessing the operation’s potential environmental impacts. Now, the pair and other neighbors in Dixon and the surrounding community are concerned that the milking operation—relocated from San Bernardino County in Southern California—also will degrade air quality and create an unbearable stench.

“We are not talking about milkmaids and happy cows, but about a large dairy operation that creates huge amounts of toxic stuff in an area where we have already spoiled much of what we have,” Lozano said.

When Cushman, who once worked for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, learned that Solano’s first mega-dairy was moving across the road, he and his wife had their water wells tested. To their dismay, sampling revealed already unhealthy levels of nitrates. Though the source of the contamination is unknown, the couple suspects the high levels were caused by dairy runoff even though the facility is not yet fully operational.

To make matters worse, the couple and others believe a trend is afoot for more corporate dairies from the southern part of the state to follow in Heritage’s footsteps and move north.

Corporate cow palace
For decades, Solano County has been home to a handful of 100- and 200-cow dairies, but none approach the size of the projected Heritage operation. However, one larger dairy, located just up the road from Cushman and Lozano, holds about 1,200 cows. On hot, still summer evenings, the stench emanating from that dairy has kept the couple indoors.

One cow produces about 120 pounds of wet manure a day; 6,000 cows create as much waste as a small city, albeit one without a wastewater-treatment plant. The cow dung creates toxic emissions including methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and volatile organic compounds.

Furthermore, dairies use a lot of water—much of it to flush the excretions in the cow’s stalls into man-made storage pits. The runoff, which is loaded with manure, hormones and pesticides, can wash into nearby waterways and seep into groundwater. Also, heavy rainfall can cause lagoons that store the manure to overflow.

One of the conditions of the Heritage Dairy’s county permit was that there be no such runoff—that all the excretions be channeled to pits or lagoons.

But critics say that just isn’t realistic and that runoff is inevitable. Still, Lozano has not shown her December overflow photos to the county or the regional water-quality board, which regulates wastewater discharges. The agencies have ignored the couple’s previous concerns, she said.

For example, less than two weeks before the county planning commission voted in 2001 to allow the factory dairy, Cushman, Lozano and a few other neighbors received a one-page notice. It stated the commission would consider approving the huge dairy without requiring an environmental-impact report under the California Environmental Quality Act.

After receiving the notice, Cushman and Lozano asked the commissioners to postpone voting on the matter so that they and their neighbors could scramble to learn what they could about the proposal. The landowners whose property abuts the dairy, Steve and Joan Jones, even hired a lawyer, who wrote an assessment of the potential odor-, air- and water-pollution issues raised by the proposed dairy. But the commissioners went ahead with the meeting, without considering a delay or the lawyer’s report. Neither staff nor councilmembers had time to review it, according to the minutes of the meeting.

Then, the commissioners approved the dairy as proposed.

“It is disappointing that the regular, normal citizen doesn’t have much of a voice,” Joan Jones complained.

“If you raise questions, you are seen as against farmers and agriculture and [as though you] want to deny children milk,” Lozano added.

When asked about the bare-bones notice, Solano County Senior Planner Matt Walsh said the agency complied with public-notice requirements. In addition to the announcements to the surrounding owners, two notices were placed in local papers.

One of the key reasons the commission approved the dairy was that, although unprecedented in size, the dairy is a permissible use of the land, which is not restricted by the same environmental rules governing other industrial activities.

Indeed, Heritage Dairy owners Peter and Brenda Albers said they chose to relocate in the Solano area after talking to a local dairy farmer who told them there were few complications or complaints about his operations, according to minutes from a July 2001 commission meeting. The Alberses were unavailable for comment about this or their neighbors’ pollution concerns.

Word about the proposed Heritage Dairy did not start to spread beyond the neighbors until the middle of last year, when some environmental groups started talking about it. Complaints began pouring into the county for not informing the public better and for approving the dairy without studying the environmental ramifications. “All of a sudden, a huge factory farm is setting up business here, and almost no one knew about it,” said nearby Vacaville resident Kim Sturla.

“Such industrial-style operations produce and store large quantities of animal waste in leak-prone lagoons, making our water at risk,” Jean Jackman, head of the Yolo Solano Sierra Club, wrote to the county supervisors in mid-August. She added that every corporate farm “replaces 10 family farmers who often use more environmentally friendly techniques.”

Since that time, the planning commission has changed its tune and has agreed to notify the public about any large dairies or feedlots applying for permits. In addition, large dairies no longer will be approved without the completion of a comprehensive assessment of their environmental risks.

Another huge dairy, called Zysling, applied for commission approval. But after the owners learned they would be required to carry out an environmental study, Zysling pulled its application.

A huge feedlot, known as Borges and Machado Heifer Ranch, moved into the area and built its operation without first getting county approval. The feedlot violated county set-back requirements and is now on hold because it lacks a permit, Walsh said.

Devastating discharge
The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Board does not require dairies or other farm operations to apply for wastewater-discharge permits. Last December, the board extended that policy, a waiver of Clean Water Act requirements, for another two years. The waiver caused an uproar in the local environmental community.

However, the board’s staff had required Heritage Dairy to put in six monitoring wells and was prepared to require the dairy to take baseline water samples to compare with subsequent water-quality tests. But the small staff working dairy issues for the board was reportedly sidetracked by a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulation that requires dairies with more than 700 cows to have wastewater-discharge permits, and the staff is developing the implementation specifics. So, the Heritage Dairy was placed on the back burner.

“The [EPA] programmatic issues must be addressed first,” said Cam Williams, the board’s associate engineer.

As far as air-quality controls go, the regional air-quality board does not have jurisdiction on Heritage operations. But Larry Greene, of the Yolo Solano Air District, said his agency would respond to complaints about smell and air quality. Greene suspects Solano County may be pressured to adopt an ordinance like one passed in neighboring Yolo County, which requires a full public-review process of proposed large dairies and feedlots “to keep them from flying in under the radar screen.”

California is the nation’s largest dairy state, and the Chino Basin down south is considered to have the largest concentrations of dairies in the world, according to the EPA. Dairy wastes from there have contaminated the Santa Ana River watershed, and a recently passed water bond is dedicating $35 million to cleaning it up, said Vicki Lee, Sierra Club Mother Lode Conservation chairwoman.

There is also tremendous pressure to push these factories out of the area because of their proximity to heavily populated cities. The concern is that those milk factories may move north.

“We have been disengaged from factory farming because we couldn’t see it. But now it is affecting us,” Lee warned.

Solano County’s Walsh said there has been one application inquiry to date. “Large dairies should probably expect to do an environmental-impact report, and if they are ready to do that, fine,” Walsh said.

At this stage of the game, Cushman and Lozano doubt they can do much about Heritage Dairy. Inside their century-old home across the way from the coming mega-dairy, they recently got a boost from a satirical song about cows who are headed for slaughter but stage an uprising, called “Cows With Guns.” As Dana Lyons sang, “We shall fight for bovine freedom, and hold our large heads high.” For a moment, Cushman and Lozano were able to grin and forget about their new industrial neighbor.