Residents of California’s San Joaquin Valley say that pollution from a dairy’s methane project is compromising access to clean air and water.

The stench of manure and urine often hangs in the air of Pixley, a small community of 4,000 in the southern San Joaquin Valley. Inside a community center, a half dozen women describe what it’s like to be surrounded by tens of thousands of dairy cows at the large farms that dominate the region. Besides the smell, a mix of pollutants from livestock waste is filling the air and water and may be having severe impacts on their health. They blame growing dairy farms.

Experts say California climate policies encourage larger herd sizes. While state-wide data aren’t available until next year, there’s anecdotal evidence that some farms are getting bigger: A couple miles from the community center, Four J Farms has seen its herd of cows increase from 1,800 to 3,500 in five years. It’s one of more than 130 dairies across the state that have essentially been transformed into biogas factories.

Since 2018, California has paid farmers and companies to capture methane from cow manure to sell as fuel. It’s helped cut emissions of methane – a super-climate-warming greenhouse gas – by 3 million metric tons (3.31 million tons) since 2013. But people who live near the farms say they are now exposed to a higher volume of hazardous pollutants as the number of cows has multiplied.

Maria Arevalo has lived in Pixley since 1967 and says the pollution got worse after the dairies showed up. She was diagnosed with sleep apnea, as were several of her family members. (In one form of the disorder, the throat closes during sleep – sending a message to the brain to wake up or choke; in the other, a person pauses their breathing repeatedly through the night.) Arevalo blames the dairies, and there is some evidence for her claims: A 2019 study found that microscopic particulate matter commonly emitted from livestock waste was closely associated with both types of sleep apnea. “It’s costing us our lives here in Pixley, just to make money for the dairies,” said Arevalo.

There is evidence that large scale livestock operations correlate with cardiovascular and respiratory disease, both of which are widespread in Pixley. The women described difficulty breathing and severe lung illnesses among their neighbors. According to the state, it’s among California’s most polluted communities: Levels of dangerous pollutants such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and volatile organic compounds are very high. Many residents are low-income farmworkers and their families, and 92% are Black or Latino – a demographic profile similar to communities throughout the Central Valley that adjoin massive dairy farms.

When another resident, Josefa González, asked doctors why people here seem to get so sick, with medical problems ranging from allergies and asthma to heart conditions, she said the doctors told her the only solution was to move. “There’s a lot of dairies, a lot,” González told Capital & Main. “That’s why I say they have to stop bringing more cows here, because it’s too much – we’re getting sick.”

California Climate Policy incentivizes larger dairy farms

Cow manure and burps (known as enteric fermentation) emit almost four times the amount of methane that comes from oil and gas production, and livestock is the biggest source of methane in the state. Yet there are no state or federal laws requiring dairies to limit their emissions of this greenhouse gas.

California hopes to install 543 manure digesters by 2030, a three-fold increase since 2020, and the result will likely concentrate the cows at larger farms with thousands of animals. More digesters (which are systems in which anaerobic digestion takes place) will result in less methane in the atmosphere, but possibly more methane produced overall via state subsidies, attracting corporate interests: In 2022, Chevron invested in a California digester as part of its plans to capture and sell renewable natural gas.

About $610 million in public and private funds has gone to digesters, including grants and credits through the state’s cap and trade and Low Carbon Fuel Standard programs. That doesn’t include federal support, with more possibly coming via the Inflation Reduction Act. By comparison, about $88 million has gone to researching alternative manure management practices, such as feed additives, that could reduce methane without incentivizing more cows.

A mile away from the community center, pregnant brown cows at Four J Farms munch on corn and citrus pulp. As they defecate, their waste is flushed into a machine that separates the solid matter from the liquid. The farm sends the liquid manure via pipeline to an ethanol refinery down the street, Calgren Renewable Fuels, to be digested in an air-tight mechanical process.

Maas Energy Works, which plans to install another digester on site at Four J Farms, pays owner Frank Junio at least $40 a cow per year for the manure. Often it’s more, depending on the value of low carbon fuel credits awarded by the state. “It’s doing good for us and the environment, a win-win,” Junio told Capital & Main during a visit in early February.

The digester system connecting farm to refinery was a pilot concept for the state to test how organic waste could be integrated into the production of ethanol and renewable natural gas. Four J Farms is one of 13 dairies that feed gas into SoCalGas’ network. Digesters and pipelines are spreading across the Central Valley, part of a dairy gas boom.

But this progress on climate comes with a human cost. At Junio’s farm, open-air piles of manure taller than a pickup truck release ammonia, which mixes with other chemicals to form inhalable particulate matter known as PM2.5, among the deadliest pollutants to human health. Wastewater from the digester is piped back to Four J Farms, where it’s stored in a lagoon that holds 50 times more liquid than an Olympic swimming pool. Junio eventually uses the wastewater to irrigate corn and wheat, likely releasing more ammonia into the air.

Ammonia PM2.5 pollution from livestock waste results in about 1,700 premature deaths each year in the Central Valley, according to an authoritative study. Yet farms aren’t regulated for it.

Junio said he increased the size of his herd to produce more milk, not because of the payments for producing gas. He called the payments for his expanded cow population’s manure gas a “bonus” that can add up to $140,000 a year, sometimes much more. It’s a welcome bump, says Frank, in an industry with slim margins.

“The broad trends in the dairy industry are for larger, more consolidated operations,” said Colin Murphy, deputy director of the Policy Institute for Energy, Environment, and the Economy at UC Davis, with expertise on state emissions policy. California’s dairy methane policy may have contributed to this trend, he added.

Recent legislation introduced by state Sen. Ben Allen (D-Redondo Beach), SB 709, would limit the value of credits produced by dairy biogas under the state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard. The program credits companies for producing vehicle fuel that replaces fossil fuels, and the bill would change the rules so less money is awarded for dairies that capture methane.

“Unfortunately, it appears that a program intended to reward an industry for addressing its climate emissions is being exploited to do just the opposite and is threatening public health,” Allen said in a statement after introducing the bill.

Pixley digester possibly approved with bad information

Pixley is surrounded by 17 digester-connected farms. Organizers with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, an environmental justice organization, have tried for years to convince regulators at the California Air Resources Board (CARB) that the state’s dairy methane policy is hurting communities such as Pixley.

In a statement to Capital & Main, agency spokesperson Dave Clegern said that “CARB staff remains open to assessing these concerns and all evidence related to these concerns within the context of rulemaking and climate change planning public processes.”

Though the Leadership Counsel hasn’t changed regulations, it is a sponsor of SB 709, and has also helped organize locals, including longtime Pixley resident Elena Saldivar. A Texan by birth who served on the Town Council from 2007 to 2022, Saldivar has become an outspoken critic of large dairies. During her time on the council, Saldivar was the only official to question the installation of the Calgren digester. She learned of the project at a council meeting. “They didn’t present it like it would be a future thing; it was like, it’s already up and going,” Saldivar recalled. “And we were like, did you do an environmental impact report and all that? They hadn’t done anything like that.”

Seeded with a $4,672,798 grant from the California Energy Commission (CEC), the Pixley digester stacks clean air subsidies because it creates two types of clean fuel. But California hasn’t studied how the project may be affecting the health of nearby residents. CARB determined years ago that it was underestimating dairy emissions of ammonia-based PM2.5 and nitrous oxide, another dangerous pollutant, but only late last year did it approve contracts to research the issue generally.

Records obtained by Capital & Main indicate the Pixley digester may have been approved with faulty information. The CEC awarded grant money to the project based on research contributed by a former professor with a history of data fabrications who had contracts with the digester’s designer and builder. The grant applicants, including Maas Energy Works and Calgren, asserted that wastewater piped back to Four J Farms would be “friendlier to air and water quality concerns than raw manure” — claims that echoed data fabrications later uncovered by university investigators.

At an intersection full of potholes, Saldivar rattled off Pixley’s dire needs: housing, fixed roads, public transit, a youth center. She says her time in local government made her aware of a bias among elected officials favoring dairies and agriculture. At $7.57 billion, dairy products were California’s most valuable agricultural commodity in 2021 – and with about 300 dairies, Tulare County is ground zero. Recently, the ethanol plant was awarded $8.84 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop carbon dioxide capturing technology alongside the digester.

With so much wealth flowing to these industries, residents feel that their needs have been neglected by comparison. “It’s like that little movie they show during Christmas about the toys that were forgotten. We are the community that was forgotten,” she told Capital & Main.

Floods and drought affect dairy water impacts

Senate Bill 709 also identifies concerning groundwater impacts from dairies. Residents who spoke with Capital & Main said they believed their water was under threat from growing herds.

A consulting firm found worsening levels of nitrate pollution in water tables underneath all 42 Central Valley dairies it surveyed, a direct result of bovine waste percolating into the soil. Plastic lining underneath the digestate lagoon at Four J Farms reduces the risk of wastewater seeping into the groundwater but doesn’t eliminate it entirely.

Risks from manure lagoons are growing as floods from historic storms surge out of creeks and canals. At least 18 dairies in Tulare County were forced to evacuate in March, according to varying sources, from 10,000 to more than 100,000 cows. If floods send manure wastewater into surrounding communities, it could pose major health risks in two ways. First, the wastewater itself carries bacteria; second, it could sink into the water table, affecting community wells

The floods may have also interrupted digesters. Open-source satellite imagery generated by GreenGood Labs LLC shows flooding at more than three dozen dairies with digesters in the county. If any of them stopped operating, it would reduce their climate benefits. Four J Farms had to move 1,600 cows, though Junio said the digester system wasn’t interrupted; the county couldn’t confirm whether other digesters were disrupted by floods.

When Capital & Main visited Junio’s farm in early February, he complained about the lack of water. He is the president of the Pixley Irrigation District, which recently declared that acute drought was forcing farmers to pump huge volumes of groundwater — in California, dairies alone use about 142 million gallons of water a day. This winter and spring, as farmers reel from too much water due to a heavy rainy season, the extreme swings from wet to dry caused by climate change are disturbingly clear.

Pixley residents rely entirely on groundwater, making them, in effect, dependent on farmers and dairymen to manage and replenish their water supplies. It’s not yet clear what all the new water means for farmers and residents. In March, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order making it easier for farmers to recharge aquifers by letting flood waters sink into their crop fields.

On the one hand, it’s critical for farmers to recharge groundwater as the state’s climate gets drier. On the other, sinking water pushes contaminants – from dairies as well as historical pesticides – deeper into the ground. It also creates a power imbalance in water access that may violate the state’s official recognition of the human right to water, according to Kristin Dobbin, an assistant professor at UC Berkeley focused on water justice policy in California.

“We know in reality on the ground there’s often challenges and power dynamics at play,” Dobbin said. “We don’t see places like Pixley having access to [fresh] water supplies – it’s very rare for a small community to have water rights.”

Pixley’s wells were more than 90% depleted before this year, and historically contaminated with arsenic and 1,2,3-trichloropropane, or 1,2,3-TCP, a carcinogenic component of soil fumigants used for decades. While there’s no evidence of widespread nitrate pollution of its local water table, nitrates are the second most common groundwater pollutant found throughout the state, mostly in agricultural communities.

To treat their water, Pixley residents pay about $70 a month, a steep cost for one of the poorest communities in the state. A Pixley Public Utility District representative told Capital & Main the town’s water is chlorinated. A common effect of heavily chlorinated water is itchy skin, which Saldivar says she experiences when she showers. She normally drives to nearby towns to buy bottled water and fill up at dispensers, spending nearly a fifth of her monthly income on water. One day, when she couldn’t afford to drive to a nearby dispenser and had to use faucet water, she reflected on how many of her neighbours have to endure this reality: “I was thinking of these families in this town, that’s their daily life,” Saldivar said. “That was very sad to me.”

Original source: https://capitalandmain.com