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Mega-Dairy Cowed by Legal Threat
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The Planet
Mega-Dairy Cowed by Legal Threat

by Pat Gallagher
Sierra Club Senior Attorney

In July, on behalf of the Sierra Club I filed a legal brief against a proposal for a massive dairy operation in California. Then I took a vacation, expecting that when I got back I'd be preparing the case against one of the world's most powerful agribusiness corporations, J.G. Boswell Co. Instead, I returned to find that Boswell had turned tail and dropped its plan the day after the brief was filed.

I should go on vacation more often.

Dairies don't automatically come to mind as a threat to the environment. We think of rolling green hills dotted with timid black and white cows, quietly chewing their cud, marching slowly to the barn at milking time. But that's the past - today, these new mega-dairy operations cram thousands of cows into penned lots, and the animals and their waste cause concentrated, intractable water and air-pollution problems.

It was in a Kentucky hotel meeting room, of all places, that the Sierra Club began its fight against Boswell's proposed 47,000-cow dairy and all the manure that would come with it.

Sierra Club rabble-rousers and organizers from Missouri, Iowa, Kentucky, North Carolina and elsewhere had come together last December to plot the next round of tactics in the Club's national Clean Water Campaign. We were there to devise a two-year strategy for fighting the scourge of concentrated animal feeding operations - or CAFOs. These are the industrial-scale hog factories ("Big Swine") and million-bird poultry houses ("Big Chicken") that wreak havoc on air and water quality wherever they set up shop - usually near poor, rural communities.

At the meeting, someone mentioned that the CAFO campaign needed to get up to speed on mega-dairies - and that something was afoot near Bakersfield, Calif.

No one knew much about "Big Dairy," but I got a clear picture of it when, upon my return from Kentucky, I began snooping around the Bakersfield area. It's like a hotter, drier Nebraska, and the air pollution was so bad that I couldn't see either of the massive mountain ranges that border the San Joaquin Valley.

Caroline Farrell of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment (CRPE), a non-profit organization working for environmental justice in the San Joaquin Valley, was kind enough to fill me in on the Big Dairy problems in the area. CRPE's clients - farm laborers -don't like the prospect of the horrible odor and water pollution associated with the big feedlot dairies.

Farrell told me about the J.G. Boswell Co.'s plans for a mega-dairy in Kings County, where the current average number of cows per facility is 800. The company wanted to put 47,000 cows in one huge complex, representing a 50 percent jump in the county's total cow population. Every year this facility would produce almost 150 million gallons of effluent and hundreds of tons of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane and other gases.

The Kings County Board of Supervisors approved the environmental impact report for this monster project in April. The Sierra Club and CRPE sued in state court soon thereafter. In our opening legal brief, we argued that the county government was ignoring critical problems - cumulative air pollution and groundwater contamination - and we challenged their determination that the only "feasible" dairy was this project.

On July 21 we filed the brief and braced ourselves for what promised to be a tough lawsuit against the county and Boswell. The California dairy industry is in the throes of dramatic change - the age of the 20,000-plus-cow dairy has arrived. We saw the Boswell proposal as the leading edge of this phenomenon.

With this suit, the Club's Environmental Law Program was pursuing its mission to support local, grassroots implementation of the Club's national priority campaigns - in this case the Clean Water/CAFO Campaign. This was one of the first suits filed by the new in-house litigation team, which planned to argue the case instead of having outside attorneys do the job.

That's when I left for vacation. One day later, the company withdrew its permit application from Kings County, like the kid down the block who packs up and goes home when he's not getting his own way.

Several county supervisors have placed blame for Boswell's departure squarely on the Sierra Club and CRPE.

We'll happily take the blame - for keeping the air and groundwater a little cleaner in the Central Valley.


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