Farmers put up stink over stench

ROYAL CITY — Here among the coulees and irrigated plains of Grant County, some 1,500 family farms thrive under the Eastern Washington sun. But beneath the quiet hum of this agricultural center is a feud pitting farmer against farmer.

And the fight soon may be aired in the federal courthouse in Spokane. The quarrel is about stench — the sometimes overwhelming smell of manure generated by the 3,000 cows of the state's third-largest dairy, Smith Brothers Farms. For 79 years, Smith Brothers has delivered milk, butter and ice cream directly to Puget Sound-area homes. Today, the company's drivers serve 40,000 households. It's the only dairy in the state that still delivers door-to-door, milkman-style.

In 2001, Smith Brothers, which got its start in South King County's once bucolic Green River Valley, moved its cows from Kent to a 200-acre plot near Royal City — population 1,800.

The company now finds itself facing a lawsuit filed by its new farming neighbors, who say they are fed up with the eye-watering stench of the dairy's manure-storage lagoon.

"I am not opposed to the dairy industry in general," says neighbor Cindy Carter, 37, who has led the fight against Smith Brothers.

Carter, a member of the Washington Dairywomen's Association, is in a tricky spot as a farmer suing her own.

"I grew up on a dairy farm, and my parents run a feedlot and my brothers have a dairy," she says. "I know what animals smell like, but I also know that there is a huge difference between the regular smell of animals and silage and the smell of that Smith Brothers lagoon."

By all accounts, Smith Brothers has been trying to address the odor problem.

"All I can tell you is that they've put a lot of money into their system to try to make it work better" says Lyle Stoltman, Nutrient Management Specialist for the Natural Resource Conservation Service in Othello, Adams County. And some neighbors involved in the lawsuit have noticed an improvement in the past year.

The suit, which accuses the farm of violating federal water- and air-pollution laws, underscores two significant shifts in Washington's dairy industry.

Dairies are consolidating, with big farms getting bigger and small outfits fading away. The number of dairy cows in the state has been stable the past several decades, but the number of farms has dropped. In 1994 nearly 1,100 dairies called Washington home; today only 566 do.

Also, large dairies are moving from the state's traditional dairy region west of the Cascades to the east side of the state, where the close proximity of feed growers keeps costs down and drier weather usually makes manure management easier. The state's two largest dairies, the 6,000-head Cow Palace and 4,000-head Mensonides Dairy, are both in Yakima County.

As dairy operations concentrate ever more cattle on a single farm, controlling air and water pollution becomes increasingly difficult — the Smith Brothers Dairy herd generates as much feces as a city of 70,000 people.

The bad smells from the Smith Brothers lagoons are likely the result of chemical reactions that produce hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, according to Ron Sheffield, a dairy-waste-management specialist at the University of Idaho. If the concentration of oxygen in a manure pond is kept at the proper level by aeration, Sheffield says, those reactions don't occur, and the lagoon doesn't stink.

But manure lagoons are complex systems, and keeping them properly oxygenated can be difficult, especially for a dairy that's just starting to operate, Sheffield says.

Last year, the regulatory responsibility for dairy waste passed from the state Department of Ecology to the Department of Agriculture, a transition that Charlie Tebbutt, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center in Eugene, Ore., says "has left a regulatory black hole."

"For the better part of eight to 12 months, nothing much has been going on, as far as we can see," Tebbutt says. "With dairies, it's always 'milk, farming and apple pie,' but they're a heavily polluting industry."

On June 7, Tebbutt filed suit in federal court in Spokane on behalf of a group of Royal City farmers organized by Carter, the dairy's neighbor. The suit alleges that Smith Brothers is in violation of both the federal Clean Water Act and federal laws requiring the reporting of emissions of large amounts of hydrogen sulfide and ammonia.

Tebbutt says this is the first suit brought in Washington against a dairy alleging air-pollution-law violations. Under the laws cited in the suit, Smith Brothers could be liable for fines of up to $27,500 per day.

Smith Brothers has had regulatory trouble in the past: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined the dairy $11,000 in 1999 for Clean Water Act violations at its farm in Kent. That penalty was part of a late-1990s federal crackdown on environmental violations by Washington dairy farms that ultimately led to a revamping of the state's dairy pollution laws.

MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
The Royal Branch Canal provides water for irrigation and collects runoff from agricultural activities. Neighbors are concerned that seepage from the Smith Brothers manure lagoon could enter the canal.
Jay Gordon, the Executive Director of the Washington State Dairy Federation and a dairy farmer himself, disputes Tebbutt's assessment of dairy regulation in the state.

"It's absolutely not true that there's a regulatory black hole," he says. "The goal of our producers in this state is to have every dairy inspected every 18 months, and to have the Department of Agriculture follow up on citizen complaints."

Nora Mena, who runs the Department of Agriculture's Livestock Nutrient Management Program, says the new Eastern Washington dairy inspector has been doing her best, inspecting 20 of the 93 dairies east of the Cascades in the first six months of 2004, and responding to complaints about the Smith Brothers facility four times.

Despite those complaints, the state did not find grounds for regulatory action against Smith Brothers.

Some neighbors, like Jerry Allred, who irrigates and fertilizes his crops with wastewater from the Smith Brothers lagoon, think the smell is an acceptable tradeoff for what the dairy brings to the area.

"Dairy is a good industry for farmers," Allred says. "I question whether we farmers should be doing this sort of thing to other farmers. If you make this a big issue, it'll affect the whole industry.

"What do I think about the Smith Brothers dairy?" Allred says. "I think it's a dairy. I think it smells like a dairy."

But for more than two years, the five members of the Carter family, whose 1,700-acre farm sits just east of the Smith Brothers' Royal City operation, think they've had plenty to complain about.

"It smelled like a dirty diaper that hasn't been changed, or a dead fish, or bad egg salad," says Kally Carter, 11. "When I have friends over, they think that it's my house that smells bad. And sometimes you can smell it at school."

School is five miles east.

That kind of criticism is hard to take for Smith Brothers, which prides itself on its loyal customers and long history as a Washington agricultural institution.

Western Washington residents, in fact, once seemed to like just about everything from the Smith Brothers herd.

"Gardeners used to love our manure," says Alexis Koester, the third-generation Smith Brothers CEO.

In the 1990s, when the Smith Brothers cattle were still in Kent, Koester's father, Dan Smith, used a "manure washer" to prepare cow poop for use by gardeners in the Puget Sound area. The special manure was a hit — the subject of fan mail to the dairy and gardening columns in local newspapers. "We had to have a full-time driver with a dump truck to deliver it all," Koester recalled.

Helping local gardeners matched Smith Brothers' old-time image. The company's milk-truck drivers have delivered door-to-door since the West Valley Highway was paved with cobblestones. "That's just the way we've always done it," Koester says.

On the advice of Smith Brothers' attorneys, Koester declined to comment on the lawsuit.

While Smith Brothers Dairy may be a beloved brand name in Western Washington, in Royal City, Cindy Carter just wants the smell to stop. Beginning in the spring of 2002, she called and wrote letters to Smith Brothers, collected 300 signatures on a petition and assembled a binder of 30 signed declarations from frustrated neighbors. She collected $40,000 in donations and hired a local lawyer to get the county to crack down on the dairy. None of it worked, she says.

In November 2003, Carter connected with Helen Reddout of the Community Association for the Restoration of the Environment, based near Sunnyside, Yakima County. Reddout's group, working with the Western Environmental Law Center, won a nationally significant case against a Lower Yakima Valley feedlot in 2002 that broadened the scope of the federal Clean Water Act's restrictions against waste discharges from large animal-feeding operations.

With Reddout's help, Carter established the Royal Valley chapter of Community Association for the Restoration of the Environment and sued Smith Brothers.

Despite the lawsuit, Carter insists that she isn't on a crusade against dairy farms. "We're not seeking damages with this suit," she says. "We just want to make them be good neighbors."

"We're pretty spread out in Grant County, but we're all neighbors," says Royal City mayor Philip Leitz. "It's different than in Seattle — over there, you don't have the same kind of economic interdependence. This dairy is a nice big agricultural business resource for us here. That's what makes it complicated.

"Grant County would like to have more industry and investment," Leitz continues. "But it's got to work right in order for us to bring in another dairy like this."

Jim Downing: 206-464-2164 or jdowning@seattletimes.com.