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Guest Perspective: Protecting Our Waterways from Agricultural Runoff—Why We Sued the State

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The Greek yogurt craze has provided a welcome boon for New York’s dairy industry.  Riverkeeper, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, and other environmental groups celebrate this economic growth, and want to make sure it helps local, sustainable family farms provide a local food source and preserve open space, keeping our beloved countryside bucolic.

Unfortunately, that’s not what the Cuomo Administration has in mind.  Environmentalists and regulators had worked for years in New York to achieve a regulatory program that would allow agricultural operations to thrive and be sufficiently protective of the environment and the clean water upon which we all depend.  Cuomo’s de-regulation of medium-sized dairy production animal feeding operations (AFOs) under the pretext of increasing yogurt production has dismantled those years of progress.

Dairy AFOs produce a tremendous amount of wet manure—about 120 pounds per cow each day according to EPA estimates.  For a single operation with just 200 cows, that means over 8 million pounds of manure per year.  When spread on fields at responsible rates, such manure is a valuable fertilizer.  But when over-applied, the manure runs off with precipitation, carrying with it disease-causing bacteria and viruses, as well as phosphorous and nitrogen nutrients that turn waterways green with algae and kill aquatic life.

The regulations that Governor Cuomo eliminated used to require all medium dairy AFOs to spread manure responsibly and carefully monitor operations to prevent such runoff—but no longer.  A Cuomo Administration representative claimed recently, “(e)asing this regulation was the right thing to do and we’re confident the courts will agree.”  Yet contrary to the representative’s statement, less than a month before the August 2012 Yogurt Summit, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) asserted, “a non-regulatory approach” to medium-sized AFOs (i.e., exactly the ones the state just deregulated) “is neither credible nor effective” to protect the health and environment of New Yorkers.  “[T]he smallest medium CAFO has the pollution potential of a major sewage treatment plant.”

The complete u-turn executed by the state has left the waterbodies that our health and our economies depend on unprotected from nutrient pollution, the most significant source of water pollution in the country.  A coalition of environmental groups, including Riverkeeper and CCE, has brought suit to fight the deregulation, uphold state and federal law, and protect our precious waters.

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