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AQMD Moves to Corral Cow Pollution

June 17, 2004|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Southern California air quality officials, whose regulatory efforts already cover smoke stacks, paint and hamburger stands, have taken on a new challenge -- cow manure.

About 250,000 dairy cattle are packed onto farms in the Chino area. The dairy lands that straddle the Riverside-San Bernardino line generate millions upon millions of pounds of manure annually, much of it stored in towering, open-air piles.

Ammonia emissions from those stockpiles contribute significantly to air pollution in heavily populated areas farther inland -- and downwind -- helping give parts of the Inland Empire the worst air quality in the nation.

The new rules, which would require more frequent cleaning of corrals and more stringent measures for disposing of manure, would cost the dairy industry about $3.5 million a year, officials at the South Coast Air Quality Management District say. The regional dairy industry has revenues of about $1 billion a year, industry officials said.

AQMD Executive Officer Barry Wallerstein called the proposed rule "a cost-effective means to reduce dairy emissions and improve public health."

An area dairy farm group and individual farmers said they are not totally opposed to the new regulations, which are expected to go into effect at the end of this year. But they warned that the rules could drive up the price of milk and are likely to speed the replacement of the Southland's dairy lands with housing developments that will generate more traffic.

"Just remember, for every cow that leaves the Chino basin, two cars are going to replace it," said Bob Feenstra, executive director of the Milk Producers Council in Chino.

"All of this comes down to the fact that they want to build houses in Southern California," said Art Marquez, Jr., a third-generation dairy farmer and owner of Marquez Dairies in Chino, where 2,000 Holsteins on 34 acres are milked twice a day. Each of those cows produces an estimated 120 pounds of manure a day.

Marquez said the proposed air quality rules come on top of tough new water-quality rules and skyrocketing land values. He also said regulators were underestimating how much the new rules would cost.

The new rules would require manure to be removed from corrals at least four times a year. Current water-quality rules require the cleanup twice a year.

Starting in 2006, manure that was not used on agricultural fields would either have to be sent to an anaerobic digester, where it could be recycled as "biogas" energy, be placed in a stringently regulated composting facility or be processed by alternative means such as enclosed composting bags.

Much of the waste now is trucked to an open-air composting facility in Chino that is due to close in 2006, or is spread on crop fields in the Inland Empire and Imperial and San Joaquin counties.

The Milk Producers Council has been working with AQMD for years on the rules and is trying to negotiate exemptions during the rainy season.

"When it's wet, it's heavier," said Nathan DeBoom, chief of staff at the council. "The manure acts like a sponge; it gets to be a nightmare."

Part of the pollution problem with the Chino dairies involves location. Cars, trucks and factories in Los Angeles and Orange counties emit nitrogen oxides that are carried east by prevailing winds. When the nitrogen oxides pass over the airborne ammonia from the dairies, chemical reactions in the atmosphere yield bursts of particulate-laden smog over parts of western Riverside and San Bernardino counties that are the worst in the United States on an average annual basis, Wallerstein said.

Particulate pollution contributes to breathing and heart problems, particularly in children and the elderly.

The Milk Producers Council and farmers argue that pollution caused by the dairies is decreasing even without new regulations because of the sheer number of cows being moved out of the region.

State farming figures show that of the quarter-million cows in the Chino area, about 38,000 were moved to other parts of the Southwest in 2003, a 13% decline.

But AQMD staff said that the number of cows being moved out in previous years has been uneven, in part because environmental activists in the Central Valley have gone to court to block the expansion of dairies there.

And while new housing developments will yield more cars, cutting emissions from the dairies is more important because of the role that ammonia plays in creating particulate pollution, the staff said.

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