By Tim Molloy
The Associated Press
Regulators trying to clean southern California's infamously unhealthy air have long targeted factories and old buses. Now they're setting their sights on a different breed of offender - dairy cows.
Every year, the dairies east of Los Angeles and their roughly 300,000 cows produce a million tons of manure. The ammonia and other pollutants they generate mix with smokestack and tailpipe emissions blowing inland from the Los Angeles basin to create the dirtiest air in the nation.
Regulators said the situation has gotten so bad that they need to impose the first air quality rules in the country involving manure. Among other requirements, the plans ask farmers to dispose of the waste more frequently.
Dairy farmers, however, contend the rules will add tens of thousands of dollars a year to their costs and could force them to sell their land to developers.
With "more stringent regulations and rules, it doesn't make economic sense to continue in southern California," said Art Marquez, a third-generation dairy farmer who is considering a move. "You can sell your piece of property and move somewhere else that's more agriculture-friendly."
Marquez, whose family runs two dairies on 70 acres with 2,000 cows, said it's hard to resist the $200,000 an acre offered by developers.
Dairy farmers said they now pay an average of about $50,000 a year to dispose of manure. They fear that amount could double under the regulations proposed by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which is trying to meet a 2010 federal deadline to improve air quality.
If the agency misses that deadline, the federal government could withhold billions of dollars in highway funding.
"Dairies need to do their part like every other business to help reduce the emissions they cause," air district spokesman Sam Atwood said.
The district estimates the rules would cost the industry about $3.5 million a year, or $15,000 per dairy. Under the plan, the amount of ammonia and other pollutants in the area could fall from about 20 tons a day to less than 13 tons a day by 2010, officials said.
Due to expensive land and encroaching urbanization, southern California dairy farms are more geographically concentrated than those in other states, leading to a bigger manure problem.
At a typical dairy, hundreds of cows are locked into stations where they line up to eat hay. Once released into open areas, they jam together under whatever shade they can find to avoid the heat and glare of the sun.
In other parts of the country, farmers have room to spread manure as fertilizer. But in Chino, Calif., and surrounding dairy regions, manure can remain for up to six months before tractors scoop it up for shipment to other farms as fertilizer.
The proposed regulations would require that manure be collected every three months instead of the current six. Manure that doesn't become fertilizer would have to be disposed of in environmentally safe ways.
Some area farmers already are using one of the disposal methods called for in the regulations.
Six days a week, dairy farmer Bob DeJager cleans the feeding areas of his 45-acre ranch, removing as much as 65 percent of the manure. The rest remains in grazing areas to be cleaned up twice a year.
He also collects manure from other farms and delivers it to a device called an anaerobic digester that turns it into gas. The Inland Empire Utilities Agency built the $6 million device and uses the gas to fuel a plant that supplies water for 20,000 households a year. Agency officials call it "cow power."
DeJager said he's doing his part to cut pollution and shouldn't have to clean the areas outside his feeding grounds more frequently. The regulations would cost him up to $20,000 a year and force farmers to raise milk prices, he said.
"It's just economics," he said. "It just all adds up."
Bob Feenstra, executive director of the Milk Producers Council, a trade group that represents Southern California dairies, said the manure problem will solve itself as farms give way to planned communities. In the past two years, the number of cows in the area has fallen from 350,000 to 300,000 or less, he said. But even the gradual loss of the dairies won't end the fast-growing region's air-quality problems.
"For every cow that leaves this valley, you're gonna get two cars in return," Feenstra said.
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