Editorial: State Must Permanently Deny Easterday Dairy Permit

The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) must deny a permit for the proposed Easterday Dairy to operate a 30,000-cow mega-dairy near the town of Boardman, Oregon.

Why deny the permit?

First, the Lower Umatilla Basin, the site of this proposed industrial operation, was designated a Groundwater Management Area (GWMA) in 1990 due to nitrate/nitrogen concentrations exceeding 7 milligrams per liter (mg/L). Nitrate concentrations in drinking water are linked with serious health concerns for infants and pregnant or nursing women, not to mention contributing to a variety of cancers and other health conditions.

Morrow County has declared an emergency due to nitrates in water.

In the more than 30 years since that designation, recent testing of drinking water from wells that draw from the groundwater shows the situation has grown even more dire. Even households that were fitted with reverse-osmosis filters designed to filter out nitrates were shown to have levels of the pollutant "between 29 parts per million to nearly 48 parts per million—up to nearly five times the federal safe limit" according to an article in the Oregon Capital Chronicle. 

In the same article, it quotes the technician who called with the test results from the six samples as asking, "No one is drinking this, right?"

Because of the extreme levels of nitrate pollution in the groundwater, mostly from agricultural sources, Morrow County has declared an emergency and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is considering using its emergency authority to intervene in the region.


The technician who called with the test results from the six samples
of water asked, "No one is drinking this, right?"


Then there's the history of the specific site of the proposed dairy. Initially developed as the 30,000-cow Lost Valley Farm—which has been reported on extensively here—owner Greg te Velde began building even before he had state permits in hand. In 18 months of operation, the state issued more than 200 citations for environmental violations ranging from overflowing manure lagoons, cows forced to stand in their own filth and dead animals overflowing a dumpster. Te Velde himself was arrested in a prostitution sting and charged with felony meth possession. Lost Valley declared bankruptcy in 2018.

Cody Easterday.

The scion of the vast Easterday Farms agricultural empire in Washington State, Cody Easterday, bought the failed facility for $66.9 million in early 2019, promising to clean up the heavily polluted land and restore it to profitability. Renamed Easterday Dairy, it almost immediately ran into its own set of soap opera-worthy dramas.

Cody himself turned out to have a gambling problem, which led him to create a "ghost herd" of cattle to disguise his debts, eventually pleading guilty to defrauding Tyson Foods, Inc., and another company out of more than $244 million over a period of six years by charging them for the purchase and feeding of more than 200,000 cattle that existed only on paper.


Easterday Dairy intentionally applied almost three times the allowable amount of nitrogen fertilizer on the property during the 2021 crop season.


Those troubles exacerbated the issues with the dairy, with the state putting an indefinite "pause" on the permit even though the Easterday family replaced Cody's name on the permit with that of his 25-year-old son, Cole. Moreover, according to the Kennewick, Washington, Tri-City Herald, "despite a January 2021 warning about nitrate levels, the landowners say Easterday Dairy intentionally applied almost three times the allowable amount of nitrogen fertilizer on the property during the 2021 crop season."

Drought map of Oregon with mega-dairies (blue dots).

Then in July of this year, facing years of delay and with mounting financial issues and more violations even with no animals onsite, Easterday proceeded to sue the former owners of the property for breach of contract, asking for $14 million in damages or to be released from the purchase agreement, according to several news sources.

The issues with increasing nitrate pollution from decades of state mismanagement in the region, which is also experiencing increasing drought conditions due to climate change along with a drain on the at-risk aquifer from agricultural uses, should by itself condemn the permit. But the catastrophic damage at the site and the actions of the owners speak to the need for a permanent denial of another mega-dairy for the good of the environment, the people in the community, and the air, water and groundwater we all share.

Top photo from Stand Up to Factory Farms. Photo of Cody Easterday from Easterday's public Facebook page. Drought map from Food and Water Watch.

Your Food, Your Legislature: CAFO Regulations, Pesticide Ban Top Agenda

When it gavels into session on Monday, February 3rd, the 2020 interim session of the Oregon legislature is set to address a stunning, some would say impossible, roster of work in the 35 days it is legally allowed. From climate change to gun control to spending $1 billion in revenue—not to mention the threat of Republicans walking out to kill bills they're not happy with as they did last session—it's bound to be a bumpy ride.

Several bills affecting our food system are in play, including:

New regulations on confined feeding operations (CAFOs) with more than 2,500 animals (SB 1513): On the heels of the catastrophic failure of Lost Valley Farm, a 30,000-cow mega-dairy, this bill seeks to establish more stringent regulations of new industrial animal operations. Specifically, it requires the Oregon Dept. of Agriculture (ODA) or the state Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to confirm the facility has an adequate water supply to operate and that it will need to obtain a separate permit for spreading animal waste on the land surrounding the facility.

According to Amy van Saun, a senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety (CFS), this bill is not adequate to address the problems raised by Lost Valley Farm. "The work group bill (similar to the bill proposed last session) does not go nearly far enough, and chipping away at the edges will not protect our community health and welfare from mega-dairies, including the new mega-dairy proposed at the infamous Lost Valley site. Further, we are concerned that the climate legislation again both exempts mega-dairies from controlling their methane emissions and creates a perverse incentive for people (especially from states with stronger controls) to set up or expand mega-dairies here, and to then sell dirty manure gas as 'renewable biogas' into the market," she said.

Study groundwater contamination and implement improvement plan for Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area (SB 1562):  Some drinking water wells in the federally designated Groundwater Management Area (GWMA) in Umatilla and Morrow Counties are polluted with nitrates over the federal maximum allowable limits. Blamed on agricultural effluents, the area is the site of the state's two largest factory farm dairies—the 70,000-cow Threemile Canyon Farms and the not-yet-permitted 30,000-cow Easterday Farms Dairy, the original location of the now-shuttered Lost Valley Farm.

According to a study by Colorado State University, exposure to high levels of nitrates in water can cause "blue baby syndrome," (methemoglobinemia) a condition found especially in infants under six months. This results in a reduced oxygen supply to vital tissues such as the brain and can result in brain damage and death. Pregnant women, and even ruminant animals like cattle and sheep, are all susceptible to nitrite-induced methemoglobinemia. Nitrate contamination also has well-documented adverse health risks including increasing the risk of a variety of cancers, thyroid disease, and reproductive and gestational problems.

Additional pressure for legislators to act comes from the environmental watchdog Food and Water Watch, which is requesting the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) take emergency action to address groundwater contamination in Morrow and Umatilla Counties. “Oregon officials have effectively abandoned their responsibility to protect people by doubling down on their failed approach to preventing groundwater contamination, which continues to put control in the hands of the very polluters that have created a pervasive threat to human health,” said Tarah Heinzen, Senior Staff Attorney with Food and Water Watch. “The Safe Drinking Water Act fully empowers EPA to take emergency action to protect human health in the Lower Umatilla Basin Groundwater Management Area in these circumstances," she continued, "and our petition demonstrates that it must.”

Ban aerial spraying of pesticide chlorpyrifos (HB 4109): In some agricultural communities current exposure levels to this developmental neurotoxin by children ages one to two exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) own allowable threshold by a staggering 140 times. 

Even at low levels of exposure by women during pregnancy, chlorpyrifos has been shown to alter brain functions and impair the learning ability of children into adulthood. Researchers at Columbia University have demonstrated that the presence of chlorpyrifos in the umbilical cord of developing fetuses is correlated with a decrease in psychomotor and mental development in three-year-olds. At high levels of childhood exposure, chlorpyrifos has been found to cause attention deficit, hyperactivity, slow cognitive development, a significant reduction in IQ scores and a host of other neurodevelopment problems. Children who live near farm fields experience the highest risks and impacts. A University of California Davis study found that women who resided within a mile of farms where chlorpyrifos and other organophosphate pesticides were applied had a 60 percent higher chance of giving birth to children with autism spectrum disorder.

Attorney van Saun said that CFS is "supporting a renewed push to phase out the dangerous pesticide chlorpyrifos from use in Oregon, following similar phase outs in Hawaii, California, and soon to be New York and the EU." She pointed out that a bill to phase out chlorpyrifos did not pass last session, "but the danger is still there for our kids and farm workers, so CFS is supporting efforts lead by Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN) to make this happen this session."  The hope is that the Oregon Legislature, through this bill, declares that the children of Oregon are more important than corporations that profit from exposing them (and the citizens of the state) to toxic chemicals.

Climate cap and trade (SB 1530): Also known as Legislative Concept 19, this bill follows the overall framework of last session's HB 2020, which failed to pass due to conflicts between urban and rural factions—some would say industrial and environmental concerns—in the legislature. According to an article from Oregon Public Broadcasting, "the bill would force big greenhouse gas emitters to obtain credits for each ton of gas they emit, and create an overall cap for emissions allowed in the state. That cap would lower over time, in theory ensuring Oregon meets stringent conservation targets in 2035 and 2050. Entities required to obtain permits could trade them with one another."

Additions appease critics of the more stringent requirements of the previous bill, including protections for rural Oregonians from rising fuel prices; new exemptions and subsidies for industrial companies; rebates for big industrial gas users and a grandfather clause for existing wholesale contracts, giving some large companies (hint: Boeing) a break until their existing contract expires and they can structure a greener one.

Establishment of an Oregon Hemp Commission (HB 4051, HB 4072, SB 1561): House Bill 4051 creates a new state commodity commission; HB 4072 directs the Oregon Dept. of Agriculture (ODA) to administer an Oregon Hemp State Program for studying growth, cultivation and marketing of hemp; SB 1561 deals with the commercial production and sale of hemp—changed from "industrial hemp"—as well as changing definitions of marijuana offenses and regulations regarding medical marijuana.

Stay tuned for future installments as the legislative sausage is made!