SALEM — Expansion plans at several Oregon dairies have caused a backlash among vegans and animal rights activists, but farm regulators lack the authority to consider many of their objections.
Likewise, the Oregon Department of Agriculture can’t do much about dairy industry concerns that publicly disclosed regulatory filings will expose farms to trespassing and vandalism.
As mandated by the federal Clean Water Act, the agency issued a public notice in June that five dairies are seeking to change their animal waste management plans.
Wym Matthews, manager of ODA’s Confined Animal Feeding Operation program, said such notices are fairly routine, but this one was somewhat unusual because four of the five dairies want to expand their herds.
After an article in Salem’s Statesman Journal described these plans, the agency received enough requests for a public hearing that one was scheduled for Sept. 2.
Previously, such hearing requests were rare, Matthews said. “I think the interest is new.”
Several of the people requesting a hearing identified themselves as vegan, he said.
The ODA can only consider comments that relate directly to whether the waste management changes conform with the Clean Water Act, not overall opposition to animal agriculture or CAFOs as being abusive, he said.
“The permit doesn’t regulate animal cruelty,” Matthews said.
The ODA also can’t consider comments that endorse particular management systems, such as organic or pasture-raised, he said.
Many of the comments made during the Sept. 2 hearing appeared to fall outside of the ODA’s purview, as they opposed CAFO expansion generally without identifying specific problems with the proposed waste management plans.
Some commenters mentioned antibiotics, which the agency does not regulate as a pollutant.
“They end up in the meat, in the manure and in the waterways,” said Niko Morozov, a college student.
Others objected to the amount of water used to produce milk, which also isn’t regulated under the Clean Water Act.
Nic Shipley, another college student, claimed dairy water use is excessive.
“Is milk really worth it?” he said.
The issue of animal welfare was also brought up.
“In an ideal world, we wouldn’t treat animals the way we do and have massive mega-farms,” said Laurel Hines. “My opposition is to the large farms, the farms that aren’t organic.”
Gavin Curtis expressed dismay with the practice of culling young calves for “bob veal.”
“These two- to three-day-old babies are torn from their mothers and then slaughtered,” he said.
During a July meeting of an advisory group for the CAFO program, some livestock industry representatives expressed worries that information contained in the waste management plans, such as the farm’s location and layout, will expose dairies to retaliation from activists.
Dairy and agriculture representatives later said a Statesman Journal article mischaracterized their comments as trying to hide information from the public.
Tami Kerr, executive director of the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association, said they were simply worried about private information being misused and not about the contents of the waste management plans becoming public.
“We were asking questions and expressing concern for our producers,” Kerr said. “We’re not trying to hide anything. I’m a big fan of transparency.”
While ODA can redact confidential business information — such as financial data or experimental water treatment systems with patents pending — the bulk of these plans must be publicly disclosed under the Clean Water Act, Matthews said.
“We’re required to by law,” he said.