Follow the plan (Editorial)

(Aug. 25, 2015) The so-called Cow Palace Dairy in Granger, Wash., had a total herd of 11,000 animals: 7,372 milking cows, 897 dry cows, 243 springers, 89 breeding bulls and 3,095 calves.
In 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency became aware of high nitrate levels in the region’s drinking water and began to investigate by collecting samples.
Ultimately, a federal district court in Washington state found that manure from a dairy farm could be considered “solid waste” under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
RCRA is a federal law enacted in 1976 and governs the disposal of solid and hazardous waste. The act is concerned with ensuring that solid and hazardous waste is disposed of in environmentally sound methods.
Here we pick up the thrust of an explanation of that ruling, offered by Paul Goeringer of the University of Maryland’s Agriculture Law Education Initiative, who recently hosted a webinar on the Cow Palace case.
A bottom line message here is: Full and careful attention to nutrient management plans is absolutely critical in any farm operation, not only in Granger, Wash., but across the nation.
The EPA determined that the Cow Palace (and other dairies in the area) seemed to be the source of the nitrate pollution of the groundwater and the Cow Palace agreed to clean up its act.
Cow Palace entered into an agreement to provide safe alternative water sources for those in the area using groundwater polluted with nitrates, and agreed to take actions to control potential nitrogen sources, establish monitoring wells, and use nutrient management to reduce nitrogen from being introduced into groundwater used for drinking.
The Cow Palace Dairy did have a nutrient management plan as required by the state. The plan included guidance on how best to apply manure in a beneficial way for crops and reduce environmental harm. 
When it came to applying manure to the land,  however, the dairy calculated agronomic rates in the nutrient management plan and not off nutrient sampling. 
When the dairy tested manure to determine nutrient concentrations, the dairy only tested one of 11 lagoons and used those results for all lagoons even though testing showed the lagoons varied in concentration. 
The dairy failed to take into account nutrients already in the soil when applying new nutrients. Application rates were not calculated on yield goals but on an average of previous yields. Nutrients were applied to bare ground where no crops were planted.
The lagoons were shown to have no liners and incomplete building records, and soil testing showed the lagoons were leaking millions of gallons of manure each year.
The court looked at definitions in RCRA to determine if manure was a solid waste. The court found manure to fall under the solid waste definition when it was a discarded material or one that has been abandoned or cast aside.
RCRA did not apply to agricultural waste used as a fertilizer or soil conditioners but here the court found manure used in this case was not a fertilizer because it was applied without regard to the nutrient management plan. Manure stored in leaking lagoons was also considered to be a solid waste, as was the composting manure because it was leaking into the groundwater.
The federal district court found that the dairy was violating RCRA with open dumping of a solid waste.
Goeringer pointed out that the case potentially would have come out differently if the dairy could have pointed to proper nutrient testing, applying nutrients to match yield goals, soil testing to take into account residual nutrients, and lined lagoons and composting areas.  
And that’s the point. Demonstrating even a few of these may have changed the court’s outcome, Goeringer said.
Now on to why this is important to Mid-Atlantic producers. Like Washington, we have large animal feeding operations (although our dairies are not nearly the size of Cow Palace Dairy) which produce large amounts of manure each year. 
This case highlights the importance of producers taking proactive steps to manage their manure to ensure it is applied at agronomic rates or stored within legal limits to prevent leakage.
In other words, this case could have had a much different ending if the dairy operators could have pointed to the fact that they had applied manure at agronomic rates, had lined lagoons, and had composting areas.
Remember: RCRA does not apply to agricultural waste used as a fertilizer or soil conditioner. If the Cow Palace could have demonstrated that to be the case, the court may not have found manure there to be a solid waste.