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Another Voice: Weakened rules help yogurt industry, but hurt area

By Larry Beahan

When my dad was a kid, his dad got him a job on a dairy farm. He learned to care for a herd of cows, to hitch up a team of horses and use them to pull a wagon load of milk to the dairy. He recalled the feeling of warm cow pies squishing between the toes of his bare feet as he brought the cows in for milking on frosty mornings.

Now this source of his delight is threatening to make yogurt the Tonawanda Coke of New York’s countryside. Yogurt is good for you and provides jobs. Metallurgic coke is essential to smelting iron ore. The production of both can be filthy, unhealthy and polluting.

Yogurt requires massive quantities of milk. Between 200 and 7,000 cows are being confined in barns on farms called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs. It is difficult for farmers to find enough land to absorb, as fertilizer, all the manure they produce. Much of it runs off into our streams and into Lake Erie.

A cow produces roughly 115 pounds of manure a day. A 3,000-cow CAFO thus produces 345,000 pounds. That is 4½ times the amount of excreta produced by the city of Syracuse. Of course we require Syracuse to run its waste through a sewage treatment plant, but not so the CAFO.

New York State has more than 2 million cows, so it has required any farm with 200 or more cows to comply with a plan that balances the disposal of its manure with the capacity of its land to handle it. The plan qualifies the farm for a State Pollution Discharge Elimination Permit. Farmers object that this regulation is too expensive.

To accommodate the yogurt and dairy industries, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has weakened the CAFO regulation. Now the permit requirement comes into play at 300 cows instead of 200. There are about 800 farms in New York that are likely to take advantage of this. Which means 80,000 more unregulated cows each producing its 115 pounds a day.

The Buffalo News has just run a series on the tragic polluted state of Lake Erie. It stressed ferocious blooming of algae in summer, which feeds off waste, including cow manure. The algae starves aquatic life of oxygen and poisons it with its toxins. This pollution of our lake threatens to obliterate our fishing and tourist industries that are absolutely dependent on the lake. What good is it to help one industry if you kill two others?

Did no one mention this problem to Cuomo? Please give him a call and tip him off. Sierra Club is suing the state on this issue.

Incidentally, technology put Dad out of work when the farmer bought a Ford truck to replace his team of horses. But I’m not sure even Dad would be interested in wading in Lake Erie these days.

Larry Beahan is conservation chairman of the Sierra Club Niagara Group.