The family saga of a proposed mega-dairy in Morrow County, in the wake of a multimillion dollar fraud involving imaginary cattle, has a new twist. The Easterdays, who’ve been pushing since 2019 to open a huge dairy in Boardman, have already racked up 11 separate environmental violations, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
And their cows have yet to hit the ground at the proposed site, former home to Lost Valley Farm, which garnered national headlines for its violations and conditions.
But possibly even more stunning is the Agriculture Department’s subsequent failure to deny the permit.
Instead, the agency announced it would not immediately move forward with the Easterday permit, dodging a firm denial of the operation that seems certain to pollute. Like other Oregon mega-dairies, considered an operation with more than 2,500 cows, the proposed Easterday Dairy would produce massive amounts of waste, use up staggering quantities of fresh water and emit greenhouse gasses fueling the climate crisis.
The site couldn’t have a more tortured history. The previous dairy, Lost Valley Farm, racked up more than 200 in environmental violations within 18 months after it opened in 2017, with overflowing manure lagoons, cows forced to stand in their own filth and dead animals stuffed in a trailer. It declared bankruptcy in 2018. At the time, advocates of industrial agriculture and factory farms brushed Lost Valley’s legacy aside as the unfortunate consequences of one bad actor. But the fact is that Lost Valley is a harbinger of the threats all mega-dairies pose to their environment and nearby communities.
The proposed dairy site is in Morrow County, which is still under a state of emergency due to serious nitrate contamination in the area’s groundwater. Nitrate levels in many private wells have far exceeded acceptable levels for consumption for years, introducing risks of cancer and other illnesses. Easterday Dairy would contribute as much as 12 million cubic feet of wastewater per year to an already vulnerable system. The Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management area has a long history of water contamination that has gone largely unaddressed by the Agriculture Department and the Department of Environmental Quality, which are both involved in permitting industrial agricultural operations.
Mega-dairies require enormous amounts of freshwater for the cattle to drink, to irrigate the crops the cattle eat and to clean their facilities. According to the latest research from Food & Water Watch, an environmental nonprofit, Oregon’s 11 mega-dairies currently use 8.2 million gallons of water per day — enough to supply 124,000 Oregonians with their daily water for a year. Groundwater resources are growing scarce, particularly in eastern Oregon. And while mega-dairies like the proposed Easterday Dairy can afford to drill ever deeper in search of vanishing groundwater, many Oregonians don’t have that luxury.
Low income communities continue to be most likely to suffer the worst impacts of the climate crisis. And while a summer of extended heatwaves, worsening drought and fears of a longer than usual wildfire season should point to the necessity of slashing the greenhouse gasses, Oregon’s 11 mega-dairies collectively send 17 million kilograms of methane into the air each year — the equivalent emissions of 318,000 passenger cars. Mega-dairies strain and contaminate water supplies, while simultaneously fueling the climate change worsening the drought. With nearly 30,000 cows on site, Easterday Dairy would add massive amounts of climate-warming methane to the mix. Mega-dairies also emit ammonia and other noxious chemicals that cause chronic health problems, including cancer. Nationwide, emissions from industrial livestock operations cause 12,400 deaths every year, killing more people than pollution from coal-fired power plants.
Oregon’s environmental agencies signaled a pause in the permitting process for Easterday Dairy, but this tepid response only reinforces the false notion that mega-dairies don’t harm the environment and can be good neighbors with enough opportunity. The problems of mega-dairy pollution and lax regulation won’t be solved until the Legislature enacts a moratorium on new and expanding mega-dairy facilities.
In the meantime, the Agriculture Department and Department of Environmental Quality have a responsibility to unequivocally deny the Easterday permit and protect Oregon’s water, climate and communities from a dangerous neighbor.
Kristina Beggen is the lead organizer for the Stand Up to Factory Farms coalition and Food & Water Watch’s Oregon campaigns. This column originally appeared on the Oregon Capital Chronicle website.
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