The Oregon Legislature may soon increase regulation of megadairies, in response to repeated environmental violations at Lost Valley Farm in Eastern Oregon.
Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, said Tuesday he will form a workgroup to consider legislation to prevent similar problems at other dairies.
“We are watching this situation very carefully,” Dembrow, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, said during a committee hearing Tuesday.
Lost Valley Farm is the state’s second-largest dairy. It opened in April 2017 in Boardman with a contract to supply milk to the Tillamook County Creamery Association, which makes Tillamook Cheese at a nearby factory.
Since then, the dairy has repeatedly violated its wastewater permit, allowing manure to overflow storage lagoons and seep into soil, endangering nearby municipal and private drinking water wells.
Oregon Department of Agriculture officials say an environmental disaster could result if the dairy’s wastewater treatment system is not working before rains begin in November.
The state has twice tried to shut the dairy down, first by suing owner Greg te Velde, then by revoking the dairy’s wastewater permit.
But a judge in the lawsuit, filed in Multnomah County, has ordered the state to give te Velde another chance to cure environmental problems. And te Velde has appealed the permit revocation.
In April 2018, te Velde filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, further complicating enforcement efforts.
At the hearing Tuesday, legislators expressed concern that, as his problems deepen, te Velde could simply walk away from the dairy, leaving the state with an expensive bill to clean up contamination.
Ideas for legislation floated at the hearing included:
- Charging dairies for excessive regulatory or legal costs. The Oregon Department of Agriculture has conducted 62 inspections at Lost Valley Farm since it opened, at a cost of about $800 per inspection. It normally would have inspected a facility that size four to six times. So far, the state has spent about $200,000 beyond normal permitting and regulatory costs trying to enforce environmental laws at the dairy.
- Requiring dairies to post bonds to cover any future environmental cleanup required.
- Requiring that new dairies complete construction before bringing in cows.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture also has been examining how other states regulate dairies to identify best practices, director Alexis Taylor told lawmakers.
“We all have a shared goal of protecting human health and the environment while stimulating economic opportunities in rural areas,” Taylor said.
The dairy’s permit allows it to have 30,000 cows. It currently has about 8,100, Taylor said.
Te Velde made some improvements at the dairy over the past month, including hiring a company to remove some manure from storage ponds that threaten to overflow.
At the same time, many of his problems have worsened.
Just before midnight Sept. 21, Hermiston, Oregon, police arrested te Velde on charges of felony methamphetamine possession, as well as for driving while suspended and driving on the wrong side of the road.
Officers discovered methamphetamine and smoking devices in plain view in his vehicle, and te Velde admitted using meth earlier that day, Hermiston Police Captain Scott Clark said.
Te Velde already is facing criminal charges in California for meth possession and for trying to bribe a police officer following an incident at a casino earlier this year. A pretrial conference in the case is scheduled for Oct. 23.
And earlier this month, over te Velde’s objections, the California judge overseeing his bankruptcy appointed a trustee to manage his affairs, citing te Velde’s repeated drug use, gambling, out-of-control spending, secret loans and pending criminal charges.
Oregon officials will meet with the trustee later this week to discuss what that means for environmental compliance at the dairy, Taylor said.