Same tractor, same dust, one side of the farm it is illegal

Feb 14, 2017

In Washington state, dust is regulated...sometimes. In a state where the land is made of dirt it is hard to distinguish miniscule differences between the dust in one field versus another. Yet, that is exactly what the Department of Ecology seeks to do every year.

Under the Washington Clean Air Act, Washington is subject to regulation designed to protect air quality, administered by the Department of Ecology (Ecology). Ecology has established various, but inconsistent, guidelines. 

The Clean Air Act specifies that sources of dust must implement “reasonable precautions” to prevent fugitive dust from becoming airborne. The Clean Air Act Washington provided an exemption for agricultural activities – preventing undue burden on agriculture. But not everyone was included.

For some reason, the legislature exempted cattle feedlots from the agricultural activity classification, which is odd because the raising of livestock is listed as an agricultural activity within the act.

To meet the demands of the Clean Air Act, Ecology created guidelines in 1995 known as Fugitive Dust Control Guidelines for Beef Cattle Feedlots and Best Management Practices (BMPs). Twenty-two years later, these guidelines are still in effect with no additions to the BMPs from Ecology.

The current policy means cattle feedlots are unduly scrutinized even though the agriculture exemption includes small cattle herds, horses, goats, sheep, and dairies are included. Cattlemen are now threatened with fines up to $10,000 per violation. This is a serious threat because Ecology has, in their own words, “adopted a no-tolerance stance on dust rising from thousands of animals in dry conditions.”

During recent testimony in the House and Senate, Ecology played up fears of animal agriculture. They cited statistics claiming to link exposure to animal fugitive dust to cancer and respiratory health challenges. However, this literature is amassed with exaggeration and often contradicted. A recent 2016 study showed Amish children raised around livestock were healthier than their counterparts not exposed to animal agriculture.

As someone who has been covered in all manner of animal unmentionables – I’m here, I’m alive, and I’m healthy. Exposure to animal agriculture is not a death sentence, and cherry-picking data on potential impact should not be the basis for increased regulation. Cattlemen already manage dust because it is good for their cows and their business.

Ecology’s testimony became even more speculative as the question was posed on what the difference was between dust from open range versus a feedlot. Ecology stated that it was a mixture of dirt, silica and other benign components that would not be dangerous like the feedlot. This is simply not accurate.

Overall, this issue illustrates how a lack of understanding about agriculture can turn into fear. Lack of understanding turns standard terminology, like “Confined Animal Feeding Operation or CAFO,” “not organic,” “pesticides,” “antibiotics,” into loaded language designed to scare, especially when used by urban legislators unfamiliar with the workings of agriculture. For example, organic dairies are still CAFOs and organic crops still use pesticides. Unfortunately, some policymakers don’t understand that, but still want to make policy.

Fears for “victimized” neighbors are also leveraged to push and promote excessive agricultural regulation. Not only do Right-To-Farm laws address this but the hundreds of complaints received by Ecology offer an inaccurate picture. Ecology cited numerous complaints as justification for their action. The Senate Committee Chair, however, put this in context - those hundreds of complaints were from only a couple of people making repeated complaints.

Despite Ecology’s testimony, I have hope the Senate and the House will recognize the bureaucratic excess of the current policy and make a change towards simplicity. A comment from one Washington cattlemen encapsulates the silliness of the current rule. He noted, “The same tractor on one side of the farm, pushing up the same dust, will be illegal when it is working by the feedlot.”

The House (HB 1299) and Senate (SB 5196) currently have bills addressing this issue and exempt cattle feedlots while still requiring their BMPs to stay in place. Such a move by our legislators will uphold the legislative intent of the Clean Air Act which found that “agricultural activity consistent with good practices be protected from government over-regulation.”