The dairy industry is a major - if fairly recent - segment of the growing agricultural economy in Yakima County in central Washington state. Since the 1980s, more than 70 dairies have located or expanded in the county, and collectively they now have more than 120,000 cows in production.

Believe it or not, that places Yakima among the top 12 counties for dairy production in the United States, according to research by the Yakima Herald-Republic newspaper. But while that expansion has been beneficial for the local economy and a remarkable transition toward diversity among regional farmers, there has been a trade-off, one that has rankled area citizens and environmental advocates alike.

Here’s the problem, and it’s one faced by numerous states where dairy operations have grown significantly: All those cows tend to pour a lot of volatile odors and pollutants into the local airshed, and those emissions have raised a stink among neighboring residents and eco-activists.

Unlike some of those other states and county governments, however, the Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency is working collaboratively with a dozen or so of the bigger and more influential local dairies to effect a compromise. The dairies—which include about half of all the cows in the county—have committed to a one-year pilot project aimed at reducing emissions to acceptable levels, although as an editorial in the Yakima Herald-Republic noted, “They are trying to balancing the two [sides], and critics say the balance tilts toward the industry.”

Here’s the program: The local agency will test for a number of pollutants, including:

  • Odors (VOCs)
  • Dust (particulates)
  • Ammonia
  • Methane
  • Hydrogen sulfide
  • Nitrous oxide
  • Other organic compounds

The plan will require such mitigation strategies as frequent removal of manure from pens; feed formulations that are more fully digestible; avoiding mixing feed in windy conditions; construction of windbreaks; and composting of solid manure. The plan is comprehensive, but it’s uncertain whether skeptical neighbors and vocal dairy critics can be persuaded to get onboard.

The pilot project comes with no enforcement measures, and opponents were excluded from the planning process, according to the newspaper. The Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency held no public hearings on the matter, though it did accept comments online and at its regular meetings. Gary Pruitt, executive director of the agency, urged dairy industry representatives and outside agricultural experts to approve the plan adopted earlier this month.

If all goes well, the program will be evaluated for the next 12 months, then a formal plan will be adopted, which will contain a requirement that all dairies submit air-quality management plans to the agency for review and implementation.

As the newspaper editorialized, “The critics at times have put dairies on the defensive and agency officials on edge. It’s fair to say that this step would not have come about without the critics raising a stink, and their criticism goes back years.”

Of course, national standards are also under development, and Washington State University is taking part in a study to determine safe levels of emissions from animal feeding operations, the result of a 2006 consent agreement between the Environmental Protection Agency and the animal production industries. If that study leads to tougher federal emission standards enforced by the EPA, local clean air agency would be required to comply.

The EPA agreement was crafted specifically to address “emissions of air pollutants and hazardous substances from certain animal feeding operations that may be subject to requirements of the Clean Air Act, the hazardous substance release notification provisions of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act and the emergency notification provisions of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.”

The goal is reduction of both VOCs (volatile organic compounds), hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and particulates contained in dust and debris generated by an animal agriculture operation.

The newspaper editorial stated it best: “Something likely is coming, and it’s better if that something is an effective local solution. It’s in the best interests of the industry and the clean air agency to be above-board and transparent in assembling and evaluating the data.

“Dairies may chafe at these steps—nobody likes to be told how to run their business—but if done right this process can ensure that their operations can keep playing their key role in the [local] economy with a minimum of disruption.”

Wouldn’t that be a breath of fresh air?

Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator