Green groups oppose easing state's dairy pollution regs

ALBANY (AP) -- Environmental groups are pushing back against the Cuomo administration's plan to support a growing yogurt industry by easing regulations on large-scale dairy operations.

The Greek yogurt industry is growing so fast in New York that the state doesn't have enough cows to meet the demand for milk. At a "yogurt summit" in Albany last August, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called Greek yogurt one of the best entrepreneurial opportunities in a generation.

Farms with up to 200 cows are exempt from regulations requiring extra steps to prevent pollution from cow waste. Cuomo has proposed raising the limit to 300 cows to help farms expand without incurring high regulatory costs.

"What they're doing is contrary to state law," said Kelly Foster, a senior attorney with Waterkeeper Alliance. She said the proposed rule change will cause the Department of Environmental Conservation to violate its duty under the Clean Water Act to protect waterways from pollution runoff from large dairy operations.

At Cuomo's summit in August, Ontario County dairy farmer Kerry Adams said the regulations would cost her farm $2,400 per cow if she expanded past the threshold for what is defined as a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation. Adams said she'd have to spend $200,000 to build a new barn because the current one is too close to a stream to comply with the regulations, and she'd have to invest another $200,000 in better manure processing.

The Department of Environmental Conservation held public hearings on the proposed change in the dairy regulations and accepted formal public comments through Jan. 22.

In their 80-page comment document, the Sierra Club and other groups said the proposal would likely add 25,000 cows to New York's dairy herd, resulting in more than 3 million additional pounds of urine and feces produced each day. "Without doubt, some of this urine and feces will pollute surface and groundwater and air."

The groups, which also include Riverkeeper, Earthjustice, Environmental Advocates and Citizens Campaign for the Environment, contend the proposed deregulation is a violation of the federal Clean Water Act and would undermine DEC's ability to meet runoff limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency to protect Chesapeake Bay.

Members of the New York Farm Bureau and dairy operators testified at public hearings on the proposed regulation change on Jan. 4. Dairy farmer Tom Borden, president of the Washington County Farm Bureau, said the proposal would help small farmers stay in business by making a small expansion possible without prohibitive costs.

"We are confident that DEC has full authority to be the lead agency on these issues," Steve Ammerman, spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau, said Thursday. "Our regulations are much stricter than what the federal government requires."

The Farm Bureau estimates that potentially 800 farms across the state would be in a position to add 100 cows if the new rules are approved, but not all would have the desire or resources to do that.

Greek yogurt is thicker and creamier than more traditional yogurt and requires more milk in its production. The rapid growth of the Greek yogurt industry in New York has revitalized the dairy business in the state.