Dairy industry gains momentum in battle to build facilities

Judges throw out environmental suits

Capital Press Staff Writer
June 15, 2002

SACRAMENTO - California’s dairy industry appears to be gaining momentum in its fight to build new, environmentally sound facilities.

Most new dairy plans in the Central Valley have been stalled since 1999, when Attorney General Bill Lockyer sued Tulare County, alleging insufficient environmental regulations for dairy operations. That lawsuit, and the subsequent settlement requiring greater environmental review for each new or expanded dairy, has kept the industry on its toes, searching for ways to plan the best, environmentally friendly operation.

Late last month, dairy supporters claimed a victory in Madera County. There, Superior Court Judge Charles Wieland dismissed all 14 counts of a lawsuit filed by the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment. The judge ruled that the county hadn’t violated the California Environmental Quality Act in approving the Diamond H Dairy plan, owned by Greg Hooker.

“The decision in Madera County is very encouraging,” said J.P. Cativiela, a spokesman for CARES, the Community Alliance for Responsible Environmental Stewardship. CARES is a dairy industry organization that promotes environmental practices and long-term sustainability.

“The Diamond H Dairy is a new, modern dairy with a state-of-the art facility,” Cativiela said. “They did everything they were supposed to do, and they got sued anyway.”

When the judge threw out all the allegations brought by CRPE, Cativiela knew the dairy industry had chalked up a victory.

“It’s an example, and there haven’t been too many in the past few years, of how when you follow the rules you can actually get a dairy approved,” he said.

But even dairymen who believe they are following the rules are still struggling to get plans approved in their individual counties.

This week the Tulare County Planning Commission was set to hear more testimony on the Hilarides Dairy proposal. Rob Hilarides, a farmer and dairyman, has been working on getting the dairy operation approved for more than three years. He and a handful of industry supporters put together an extensive environmental impact report for the modern facility which would include about 9,100 cows.

“To get past this problem of being sued all the time on the inadequacy of our environmental impact reports here in Tulare County we formed a dairy industry alliance group,” Hilarides said. That group put together a grass-roots effort to produce an EIR that will meet all the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act.

“If we do this right, then if one of these environmental groups tries to sue us, we can withstand it,” Hilarides said.

The dairyman said he’s holding his breath and crossing his fingers in hopes the county will finally approve the project, which has been collecting public comment since last year.

“I’m praying like crazy,” Hilarides said. “This has been an emotional roller coaster. We keep plugging away, but there are no guarantees. We’re just hoping for a happy ending.”

If the project is approved, it would be the first new dairy in Tulare County in more than three years.

Mike Marsh, chief executive director for Western United Dairymen, sure hopes a happy ending is possible for more producers.

“Originally we had a lot of success in our litigation,” he said. “Then we hit a roadblock in Tulare County and it kind of just shut everything down. Now we’re hoping to start that winning trend once again.”

In April, dairymen won yet another court victory in Kern County. There, Superior Court Judge Roger Randall rejected all but two counts in a lawsuit against the Borba Dairies.

“It’s been a long and very involved process to get that dairy approved down there,” Cativiela said. “But it does appear to be getting through the process.”

Overall, Cativiela said he thinks county officials and community leaders are beginning to better understand the benefits of dairy operations. And they’re rejecting the “wild” claims some environmental groups have been alleging in anti-dairy lawsuits.

“We’re starting to see the balance restored in the process,” he said. “We’re also seeing almost heroic efforts on behalf of local authorities on what’s been a difficult issue for them.”

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